Last week the world had witnessed another great solidarity event. In a few short days a vast majority of the educated elite had come out as refugees from other countries, conflicts and planets. The situation was reminiscent of the story from the great Soviet classic “The Little Golden Calf” by Ilya Ilf and Evgenii Petrov, where a colorful group of individuals posed as children of Lieutenant Schmidt, a famed revolutionary hero. These sudden refugees included a great number of former Soviet citizens of Jewish extraction. Notwithstanding the sincere intent to look good and help people in need, their claims of benefiting from fair and unbiased US immigration policy and being a refugee in a real sense of the word are of dubious nature to say the least.
The claim that the openness and unprejudiced humanity of the US immigration system of the early 90s had allowed the great Exodus of the Soviet Jewry to reach the American shores is factually not true. If anything an almost complete and shameful discrimination against other groups led to their entrance into the country under the refugee status. The Evil Empire had many minorities persecuted and restricted in their rights a lot more severe than the Jews: Crimean Tatars, Protestant Sects, Ukrainian Catholics, Pacifists, etc. All of them were more than happy to leave the country given a chance. Despite omnipresent everyday and state anti-Semitism the socio economic status of the Jewish population was incomparably higher than of the vast majority of population of the USSR. Moreover, most of them were rather content with their lives and had no desire to leave until the the economic collapse of the country took place. There was a small group of extremely courageous and brave individuals (known to the West as the “refuseniks”) protesting on the streets, serving time in prisons and psychiatric wards and going to the Gulag. They were true heros, but there were too few of them. Thus there was no compelling “human right” reason to give a preference to Jews or even single them out over other persecuted groups.
Now let's turn to Jackson-Vanik Amendment. It was the most important political decision in support of the Soviet Jewry. Tireless and unceasing work of a small group of uncompromising American Jewish activists served as a catalyst for its origin. It is often claimed the document calls for the right of all groups of people to immigrate. Sadly, too many want to forget the universalist aspect of the amendment was forced upon the creators for political reasons. The original document called for the right of the Jews (and the Jews only) to leave the country. The human rights fig leaf was added under the pressure by the Nixon Administration (and Secretary Kissinger in particular) to placate the voices upset by the apparent Jewish exceptionalism of the document. In reality the addition did not change the spirit of the document. All involved (both in the US and in the Soviet Union) knew that the only available way to leave the country was to receive a family reunification request from Israel. What the Administration was doing back then in regards to the Jews and other Soviet groups is exactly what the Trump Administration is attempting with its changes to the immigration policy: to give a preferential treatment to certain groups and abandoning (even if temporarily) the rest for political/security considerations. Alas the Soviet Jews were not Syrian and Iraqi Muslims of today, but more like their Christian compatriots soon to be coming in larger numbers. There is no shame in being lucky, but to claim the game was fair to all is to add insult to the injury.
So were Soviet Jews refugees? Yes, they were, but only by the definition of the word back in those relatively stable and peaceful days. Were they restricted in their rights and suffering as a result of state supported anti-Semitism? Certainly, they were. Were they harshly persecuted? A few of them were, but most of them lead relatively comfortable lives as discussed in the paragraph above. Had they been leaving the country primarily because of anti-Semitism and inability to live Jewish life as they claim, they would probably arrive in Israel (as their exit visas claimed). Not only they had chosen to go to America, but, in many cases, their pursuit of Jewishness in the new country does not go beyond donations to ACLU. However, no social status, especially such politically charged as the refugee, comes without context. These days to say one is a refugee is to instantly bring up horrific scenes of destruction from Syria, Libya and other chaotic places. When one sees a Soviet Jew with a hashtag or a sign “I am a refugee”, one is reminded of an episode from “Curb Your Enthusiasm” by Larry David. In that scene due to sequence of bizarre events two survivors end up at the Seder table arguing about whose suffering was greater: one is a “survivor” from the reality show of the same name and another is a former Auschwitz inmate. It is difficult to imagine how one may compare the Soviet experience with the one brought on by the Syrian civil war. To paraphrase old Roman saying: hashtag does not smell.
The mass self righteous hysteria taking over this country of late is destructive in its nature. It is a grassroots continuation of the feel good policies of the past few years. It is rewriting history to the detriment of the future and implicitly creating immoral equivalence of all human suffering by liking a promotion denied based on one’s nationality to losing a family in cluster bombing.