Policy concerns vs. ethical imperatives

In a Foreign Policy article (free registration required) published this last September, Julia Ioffe drew parallels, inadvertent perhaps, between her family’s entry in the US and the potential entry of refugees from the war in Syria.

Ms. Ioffe was fortunate and privileged to grow up in the US. Her parents made the right choice in the late 1980s: to move from the decaying USSR across the Atlantic while the opportunity lasted. I strongly doubt, however, that they were fleeing perils remotely comparable to what Syrians trapped in war zones have to face.

One of the principal distinctions refugee-accepting countries have to make is that between people seeking better lives and people running for their lives. Ioffe’s parents belonged with the former: they were socioeconomic immigrants.*

Looking back, letting in Soviet Jews and their families seems good policy now. Letting in all the Syrian applicants looks like horrible policy. But the principal argument for doing so is that it’s the only ethical thing to do, whatever the long-term consequences. It’s this argument that should be accepted or rejected. Hoping that the Syrians will turn out as loyal, grateful, law-abiding, and education-focused as the Soviet Jews is as delusional as it is – we are told – irrelevant.

* From Stalin’s death up to the late 1980s, Soviet Jews faced ethnic discrimination on top of the oppression suffered by most Soviet citizens regardless of ethnicity (for Soviet authorities viewed Jewishness as an ethnic, partially biological, characteristic). In particular, unwritten “Jewish quotas” (sometimes close to zero) at the best universities mangled the lives of thousands of talented Jewish youths. However, the post-Stalin USSR was not a war zone and state repression was nowhere as brutal as under Assad’s or Saddam Hussein’s rule.

All that started to change with the perestroika. Pretty much all the dissidents, including Jewish activists, were released in 1986-87. An Israeli consular group arrived in Moscow in 1988 helping re-establish diplomatic ties. Independent Jewish organizations started to appear, as well as Jewish schools, kindergartens, summer camps and Hebrew study groups. In December 1989, a congress of Jewish organizations was held in Moscow: about 300 groups sent their delegates, setting up a new, all-Soviet confederation of Jewish organizations and communities, Va’ad.

It was a time of great hopes but also of great instability. Along with liberally-minded political groupings, ethno-nationalists and crypto-Nazis were forming their own units. There was talk of an impending famine and civil war. There was an armed conflict unfolding in Karabakh and dangerous tension in Georgia and Turkmenistan, where brutal internecine wars were waiting to begin. The risks to a Moscow family with a female child were still rather low, whether looking forward from 1990 or backward from 2015.

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