Except for a brief time in the mid-1950s, Soviet Jews were not allowed to practice their religion and faced pervasive anti-Semitism. During the Cold War, especially after Israel emerged as a Western ally and the specter of Zionism raised fears of internal destabilization, Soviet Jews were presumed to be traitors or security risks, and they were treated accordingly. In the 1960s, especially in the period following the 1967 Six-Day War, thousands of Jews, secular as well as religious, requested visas to leave the country.
By so doing, however, Soviet Jews thereby maneuvered themselves even more firmly into the position of outcasts. Some were allowed to leave, but most were refused permission and had to wait for years for exit visas. Entire families had to quit their jobs and were subsequently prosecuted for being "parasites" (a Soviet classification for unemployed persons), and their children were not allowed access to education. Many were arrested, sent to labor camps, or detained for being "insane." Frequently, the reason given for the denial of emigration visas was "state security."
Jews worldwide and sympathetic nations such as the United States and the Netherlands (which had taken over consular matters for Israel during 1967–1991) protested against these violations of basic human rights. Sharansky, especially, became a worldwide symbol of Soviet repression. Despite world pressure and strong support for the refuseniks, during 1960–1989 only 320,000 Jews managed to leave the Soviet Union. Roughly 125,000 of them went to Israel. The number of Soviet émigrés to Israel dwindled in the 1980s, however.
The refuseniks distinguished themselves from dissidents and human rights activists, who rose to prominence after the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. Refuseniks did not advocate changes in the Soviet system but instead pleaded for their right to leave the country. Sometimes refuseniks and dissident groups overlapped. Anatoly and Avital Sharansky belonged both to the refuseniks and to the Moscow Helsinki human rights group.
In 1987, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev permitted mass Jewish emigration. This, however, also caused problems. The United States limited the number of immigrants it would accept. Consequently, Israel had to accept an estimated 1 million Soviet Jews. Because Jewish identity in Russia was not determined according to Jewish tradition, anyone who claimed that he or she was a Jew received an identity card indicating Jewish nationality. Some emigrating Soviet Jews thus were actually impostors or criminals who sought to exploit their newfound freedoms. After 1990, Soviet Jewish immigrants continued to pour into Israel at a rate of 1,400 per week. Integrating them into Israeli society and assisting Jews who wanted to remain in Russia therefore became a main focus of the Israeli government.
Beatrice de Graaf
Rubenstein, Joshua. Soviet Dissidents: Their Struggle for Human Rights. Boston: Beacon, 1985.