Last month, on the eve of a U.S.-Soviet summit conference with human rights on the agenda, 1,145 Jewish emigres left the Soviet Union with visas for Israel. A total of 86 actually arrived here.
The rest became what the Israeli government calls "dropouts," exchanging their immigrant invitations to Israel for refugee status in some other country once they had crossed the Soviet border. Most went to the United States.
More Soviet Jews left the Soviet Union in May than in any other month in the last seven years, and the highest percentage of emigrants decided against coming to Israel since resettlement began in 1971, Israeli officials said Wednesday in announcing last month's figures.
"The appalling rate of 95% (going elsewhere) requires us to demand in every possible way that Jews leaving the Soviet Union with a visa for Israel indeed go to Israel," said Yaakov Zur, the minister charged with absorbing new immigrants.
Zur said this rate is unacceptable and demeaning to Israel, and he asked Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir for government action to reverse the trend.
Ceasing to Live as Jews
"Over half the Soviet Jews who emigrate to the U.S. cease to live as Jews after a short period of time," Zur complained in asking that emigres be flown directly to Israel from the Soviet Union.
At present, emigres go first to Vienna, where most of them change their destination to some Western country. Zur and other Israelis who believe that the emigres should come first to Israel point out that Soviet Jews are issued visas at the request of Israel to join their families here.
"It could jeopardize the whole program if Jews supposedly going to Israel all wind up in Brooklyn and Los Angeles," said Gad Ben-Ari, a spokesman for the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. "How will the Soviets explain to their own people that it's just Jews who are allowed to emigrate to the U.S.?"
Other Israelis, along with many American Jews, believe that the issue is not Zionism but human rights. They argue that Jews who have been discriminated against in the Soviet Union should be allowed to decide for themselves where they want to go.
Amid the debate, there has been diplomatic speculation for some time that the Soviets might agree to an Israeli request to fly emigres to the Romanian capital of Bucharest, where they may pick up their visas, and then directly to Israel. Romania is the only East Bloc country with diplomatic ties to Israel.
Fear of 100% Dropout Rate
"If direct flights from Moscow to Israel are not instituted, the dropout rate will soon be 100%," Chaim Chesler, director of the Public Council for Soviet Jewry, said Wednesday.
The emigre decision against Israel reached its historic high in May after steady acceleration in recent years, according to government statistics. In the 1970s, about 170,000 of 265,000 Jews leaving the Soviet Union came to Israel. The balance shifted after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and about 75% were opting for other countries when emigration slowed to a trickle around 1980.
Of about 8,000 Soviet Jewish emigres in 1987, roughly a quarter came to Israel, according to Ben-Ari. Thus far this year, government figures show that of 4,547 Soviet Jews who emigrated with Israeli visas, 726 have settled in Israel. En route to the May record, April brought only 188 of 1,088 new Russian immigrants to Israel.
"We can't compete with the American dream," Ben-Ari complained.