Refuniks–Shanel

“The first Jews I met in Moscow on my 1973 visit were Vladimir and Masha Slepak, who three years earlier had applied for permission to leave Russia for Israel. At the time, their three-year wait seemed intolerable. I returned to the United States, kept in touch with them for a while, and continued to read about their case, which was frequently cited in the news. Finally, in 1987, fourteen years after we had met and seventeen years after they had first applied, the Slepaks were allowed to leave for Israel.” (Jewishvirtuallibrary.org)

This was an example of the hardships that Jews in the Soviet Union overcame in the late 1900s. When tensions were high between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War, the refusenik movement was given great attention and publicity. (Cooper, 3)

‘Refusenik’ is an unofficial term for individuals, typically but not exclusively Soviet Jews, who were denied permission to emigrate by the authorities of the former Soviet Union and former communist states of Central and Eastern Europe. The term refusenik is derived from the word “refusa,l” meaning the refusal of emigration by the Soviet authorities.

A large number of Soviet Jews applied for exit visas to leave the Soviet Union, especially in the period following the 1967 Six-Day War, because that is when the war ended.  While some were allowed to leave, many were refused permission to emigrate, either immediately or after their cases would last for years in the Office of Visas and Registration. The justification for the denial, in many cases, was that at some point in their careers these people have been given access to information that was important to Soviet national security, and therefore could not be allowed to leave.

During the Cold War, Soviet Jews were thought to be a security liability or possible traitors. To apply for an exit visa, the applicants (and often their entire families) would have to quit their jobs, which in turn would make them vulnerable to charges of  criminal offense. Many opportunities for advancement for Jews were blocked by systematic anti-semitism. Some government sectors were almost entirely off limits to Jews. In addition, the restrictions applied by the Soviets on religious education and expression prevented Jews from engaging in Jewish cultural and religious life. During this time Jewish activists worked in concealment to organize Hebrew lessons, underground seminars on Jewish topics, kindergartens, activities by teenagers, events and festivals, underground religious activity celebrating the Jewish holidays, and underground Jewish art. These secret meetings took place in people’s homes, putting individuals and their families at risk of arrest and harassment, if their hideouts were uncovered by Soviet authorities and informants. (Sovietjewry.org)  “The fact that a million Jews were striving to immigrate to Israel, but were trapped behind the Iron Curtain by the Soviet authorities, penetrated the world’s consciousness,” emphasized Yuli Edelshtein, the former refusenik who today is Deputy Director of the Knesset.

While these restrictions led many Jews to seek emigration, requesting an exit visa was itself seen as an act of betrayal by Soviet authorities. Therefore, requesting permission was another risk that they were taking, knowing that an official refusal would often be accompanied by dismissal from work and other forms of social banishment and economic pressure.

Before the establishment of the state of Israel, the Jews of Bukhara were almost extinct, and Middle Eastern Jews came to Central Asia and joined the Bukharan Jewish community.  Most of the refuseniks were Bukharan and their Jewish life seriously deteriorated with Soviet rule in the early 1900s. “Almost everyone who applied to leave lost their jobs, and those who were refused permission faced years of unemployment as well as prosecution under a soviet law prohibiting “parasitism”.” (Foner, 115) The community attempted to preserve their traditions while displaying loyalty to the government. Starting in 1972, however, one of the largest Bukharan Jewish emigrations in history occurred as the Jews of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan immigrated to Israel and the United States. This was enabled by the looser restrictions on immigration. In the late 1980s to the early 1990s, almost all of the remaining Bukharan Jews left Central Asia for the United States, Israel, Europe, or Australia in the last mass emigration of Bukharan Jews from their resident lands.

There was a fear of growth of nationalistic policies, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The rebirth of Islamic fundamentalism in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan persuaded an increase in the level of emigration of Jews (both Bukharan and Ashkenazi). Before the downfall of the USSR, there were 45,000 Bukharan Jews in Central Asia. The variation in number between Bukharan Jews who wanted to go to Israel and those who wanted to go the United States is very large. Today, there are about 150,000 Bukharan Jews in Israel and 60,000 in the United States.

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