Olga Khazan on the long wait in Santa Marinella

Olga Khazan writes of her quest for asylum in The Atlantic:

In 1989, my family and I were living in a small shared apartment in Santa Marinella, Italy, just northwest of Rome, waiting to find out if the United States would accept our application for asylum.

Jewish families leaving the USSR typically took an Aeroflot flight to Vienna. Once there, they could choose between going straight to Israel and travelling to Italy in order to apply for asylum in the US with the help of HIAS.

Italy was a way-station of sorts, a place where the Russians had to prove to American Immigration and Naturalization officers that we really were Jewish—and that we really were persecuted. It was an anxious time: My father has told me stories of men donning kippahs and women procuring Star-of-David necklaces in an attempt to prove their bona-fides. (Of course, most Russian Jews knew little about these accoutrements, since organized religion had long been eradicated in the Soviet Union.) But it was also a moment of great possibility.

In the 1970s and 1980s, most Soviet Jews were subjected to quotas, glass ceilings and other handicaps because of their ancestry, not their faith. Those Jewish intellectuals who joined the Orthodox Church became double pariahs, as “ethnic” Jews and as devout Christians. In 1989, Kremlin-inspired anti-Semitism was on the wane though, but those who filed for emigration in 1987, before all the imprisoned refuseniks were freed, had no way of knowing it.

Khazan then interviews the CEO of HIAS, founded as the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, now a non-denominational migration and refugee resettlement agency. This caught my eye:

The Soviet Jews had to prove category membership, and once they proved they were a Jew, they had to prove how they were discriminated against. That’s very similar to what Christians will have to go through in the Middle East. But it wasn’t hard to prove persecution as a Jew in the Soviet Union, and it certainly isn’t hard to prove persecution as a Christian in the Middle East.

“[I]t wasn’t hard to prove persecution as a Jew in the Soviet Union”? Only to a friendly, knowledgeable interviewer.

Persecution is probably the wrong word here – I’d use discrimination. Its facts were obvious to its victims and to many of their Soviet friends of colleagues. However, proving those facts to an uninformed outsider was by no means easy. Some of the schemes used by Soviet anti-Semites to keep Jews out of top jobs and colleges would make the average American roll her eyes in disbelief.

How about this gambit: Ahead of the entrance exams at a prestigious math college, a group of professors screen the applicants’ questionnaires for the parents’ names and patronymics (i.e., the grandparents’ first names). These professors make up, say, 5% of the teaching staff but 75% of the admissions committee. On the day of the oral exam, the applicants suspected of having Jewish parents or grandparents are seated in a separate auditorium and given particularly difficult problems. Only the professors from the 5% get assigned to these students, plus a few others who won’t make a fuss. Naturally, most of the (presumably) Jewish applicants get poor grades and have to apply to less prestigious colleges (if they still have time).

That’s an elaborate arrangement that requires a large enough number of committed participants. There’s no paper trail – no written instructions to college professors from above have yet been discovered. I assume that some of the professors joined on their own initiative, as principled anti-Semites. Others, I imagine, got their orders from senior colleagues – all the way up to the chancellor and further, the senior party nomenklatura.

(As a rule, Russian college profs try not to get involved in entrance exams because they are typically scheduled for late June and July, vacation time for all teaching staff from elementary up to graduate school. It was easy to get on the admissions board if one volunteered. Again, someone had to educate the INS agents on such intricacies. How many people, even in the USSR, understood how the anti-Semitic machinery worked?)

All in all, it seems that most of the Soviet immigrants of the late 1980s, like the families of Julia Ioffe and Olga Khazan, encountered a corps of INS workers willing to clear them for entry in the absence of glaring red flags.

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