Soviet Jews flood into US - by not emigrating to Israel

Olga Gorbacheva left the Soviet Union with a visa for Israel. But now that she's in Vienna - the first stop for most Jewish emigrants after leaving Moscow - the young Leningrad mother admits her real destination is California. ``All our friends live there,'' she explains.

Mrs. Gorbacheva is part of a wave of Soviet Jews who've discovered what some have dubbed the ``back door to America.''

The emigrants get visas for Israel, claiming they want to be reunited with relatives there. But once they land in Vienna, most apply to go the United States as refugees.

In the early years of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union, most Jews went to Israel. The number opting for other destinations rose in the last decade. Last year 70 percent of emigrants chose to go to the US. This year 90 percent are expected to do so. Another 5 percent this year will go to other Western countries and 5 percent to Israel.

This trend angers Israeli officials, who say the US is ``luring away'' emigrants by offering them refugee status. Jewish groups in the US counter that the emigrants should be free to choose where they go.

``A visa [for Israel] shouldn't reduce one's options - it should increase them,'' says Karl Zukerman, a spokesman for the New York-based Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Most Jewish emigrants must produce an invitation and visa for Israel before they are given an exit visa. By requiring this, Moscow avoids acknowledging that the emigrants have rejected the Soviet Union for the US.

A small number of Jews do get visas for the US - about 300 so far this year. But that number pales next to the more than 10,000 exit visas granted for Israel during the same period. ``People need to make use of this device to get out of the Soviet Union,'' says Mr. Zukerman. ``It's that simple.''

After a slump earlier this decade, the number of emigrating Soviet Jews is surging. Experts say 16,000 to 20,000 will be allowed to leave this year - compared to only 914 in 1986. Jewish emigration in August was the highest one-month total in eight years. But, Israeli officials have tried to ensure that more of these people end up in Israel.

This summer, the Israeli cabinet approved a policy that would require most Jews leaving the Soviet Union to go directly to Tel Aviv. But the Dutch Embassy in Moscow - which issues visas on behalf of Israel - has refused to implement the plan. Israel and the Soviet Union have no formal relations, hence the intermediary role played by the Dutch. However, Israel and the Soviet Union are trying to upgrade their links, and it's not clear what impact this might have on emigration.

``Even if we had our own Embassy in Moscow, we couldn't change where these people are going without the cooperation of the Soviet government,'' says Dov Schperling, director of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which coordinates Israel's immigration activities in Vienna.

The Israelis argue that, sooner or later, the Soviets will crack down on this loophole - with possible negative repercussions for Jewish emigration in general. Still, they admit that they can't compete on an even basis with the US and other Western countries in attracting the newcomers.

``If someone has a choice, of course they'll choose America,'' Mr. Schperling says. ``After all, we're just a small country surrounded by enemies.''

Schperling says the nature of Soviet Jewish emigration has changed dramatically since the first big wave began 20 years ago. In 1971, only 58 out of nearly 13,000 emigres chose not to go to Israel. But today, many are in touch with Soviet Jews who have gone to the US before them and understand their options.

Vladimir Faynzilberg, a mathematician from Kishinev in Soviet Moldavia, crouches over a table in the back of a Jewish emigration office here. ``I knew I wanted to go to the US 10 years ago - but there was no way to go there directly,'' says Mr. Fayzilberg, who arrived in Vienna with an Israeli visa.

Meanwhile, even the Soviets seem resigned to the situation. In recent months, hundreds of Pentacostal Christians have been allowed to leave the Soviet Union - all using Israeli visas.

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