I’m not sure what point Julia Ioffe tried to make with her latest piece in The Atlantic, other than to recall the limbo of being a prospective immigrant and, later, one in transit. I have no doubt her family have been upstanding and productive citizens since arriving in the US in 1990. I am less sure they were refugees in the proper sense, and far from certain they should have been admitted as refugees rather than skilled professionals.
If the US had been shopping for bright, educated, motivated new citizens, the Ioffe family would have been a perfect choice. Actually, America might have been doing just that under a purely humanitarian guise. Overall, letting in families with backgrounds similar to the Ioffes proved a good deal for the country. Those days it picked its refugees wisely.
The historical background to the Ioffes’ move is complicated: while their application was being processed, the USSR was fast liberalizing but also disintegrating, if less rapidly. By 1990, when the family finally moved to the US, Moscow had mostly abandoned its post-war policy of “state anti-Semitism.” However, the US might have viewed the general breakdown of law and order in the last years of the Soviet Union as a major threat to its ethnic and religious minorities. Moscow’s failure to prevent the Sumgait and Baku pogroms in 1988 and 1990 would have supported such a view.
This said, Israel was willing to accept Soviet Jews unconditionally: American hospitality was superfluous as far as the Refugee Convention is concerned. In the case of Sergey Brin, whose family settled in the US in 1979, there is no doubt his father suffered from the anti-Semitism sponsored by the Soviet state. However, as in the Ioffe case, Israel would have gladly accepted the Brins. Russia’s loss – self-inflicted, well-deserved; Israel’s missed opportunity; America’s gain.