These Refuseniks Say They're Still Being Denied Aliyah – This Time by Israel

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The Olikers and a story in the Philadelphia press about their plight in the 1970s.
The Olikers and a story in the Philadelphia press about their plight in the 1970s.

Like many other refuseniks in the Soviet Union in the 1970s, Lena and Vladimir Oliker endured arrests and interrogation, lost their jobs, suffered harassment and other humiliations. Their crime? Filing a request to immigrate to Israel.

Now, 46 years later, they feel enmeshed once more in what they call a “ridiculous and painful” process to realize their long-delayed dream of aliyah. But this time, there are no stone-faced Soviet clerks standing in their way. Instead, they believe it is the demands of Jewish Agency officials and the Israeli Interior Ministry that are preventing them from making their home in the Jewish state. 

The Olikers, both mathematicians, began their fight for the right to join members of Vladimir’s family in Israel in 1972. Vladimir received permission to leave three years later but, agonizingly, his wife and young daughter Olya were not allowed to join him.

The family decided to move forward step by step, even if it meant a temporary separation. Vladimir headed for Philadelphia, where a Reform synagogue had championed his family’s cause, from where he would continue to fight for his wife and daughter’s freedom. He found a faculty position at Temple University and waged a public battle to free Lena and Olya. Their story was closely covered at the time by Philadelphia newspapers.

Alone with her daughter, Lena was not permitted to work in her field and took menial jobs like operating an elevator to support herself, knitting clothes on the side. She lived in fear that the state would take Olya away from her. 

In 1976, Lena and Olya received visas for family reunification in the United States. By then, Vladimir was settled in his career. The family ended up in Atlanta, Georgia, where Vladimir became a senior professor at Emory University, and the couple raised Olya and two children born in the U.S.

However, they never gave up hope of immigrating to Israel and visited frequently over the decades; Vladimir’s parents lived in Israel until their deaths and are buried in Jerusalem. 

With both Vladimir and Lena now in their 70s and as his retirement neared, they decided it was time to take that final step. “We wanted to be Israelis,” says Lena in a telephone interview. “I want to have a home there and be able to spend long periods of time without renewing my tourist visa.” 

With this goal in mind, in 2019 the couple reached out to Nefesh B’Nefesh – the organization that facilitates aliyah from the United States. Lena said she sensed a hesitancy when the nonprofit learned of what she jokingly refers to as her “birth defect” of being a Soviet immigrant to the U.S. However, it eventually helped her contact the Jewish Agency to begin the immigration process.

Lena and Vladimir Oliker.Credit: Courtesy

The couple submitted the required papers last year, she says, and underwent a Zoom interview with the Jewish Agency emissary in Washington. They brought their U.S. passports to be examined by an emissary in Atlanta, and underwent an FBI security check to establish they had no criminal past. 

According to Lena, the process began to go awry this fall when she received letters from Jerusalem insisting that she submit original documents from the former Soviet Union.

Refuseniks were not permitted to take any original birth or marriage certificates when they left the country in the ’70s, and her notarized copies of such documents were accepted in the United States without question. Inquiries to law firms in Israel found that locating the originals in Russia would cost thousands of dollars, with no guarantee of success. 

What upset her most was when she was told it was her responsibility to reach out to Russia – presumably through the Russian consulate in the U.S. – to receive a security clearance equivalent to the one they received from the FBI. 

“There’s no way I would ever go to the Russian authorities for anything. It’s like the Jewish Agency is asking me to go back to Egypt to ask the Egyptians for permission to enter the promised land,” she says.

“We’ve really hit a big wall,” she continues. “I’m not going to repeat the steps I’ve already taken. I’m not going to beg the ‘Russian FBI’ to repatriate to Israel. This is beyond ridiculous and very painful. … We’ve been through a lot in different ways as far as immigration goes over the years. We’ve become thick-skinned and learned to bear many things – but this process feels almost unbearable.” 

In response to the Olikers’ situation, a Jewish Agency spokesperson said: “Applicants for aliyah are required to submit documents in accordance with the Interior Ministry’s Population Authority guidelines, as well as those required by international legal agreements. In situations where an applicant informs the Jewish Agency of difficulty in obtaining certain documents, we work with the Interior Ministry and the applicant to enable them to continue the application process.”

One of the Soviet Union's most famous refuseniks, Natan Sharansky, being met by then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres after arriving in Israel 35 years ago.Credit: Nati Harnik/GPO

Appalled and ashamed

Ayala Zohar, an Israeli teacher who met Lena Oliker when they were neighbors in Atlanta, says she had been eagerly anticipating her friend’s arrival as a new immigrant, but is “appalled” and “ashamed” at what she is going through.

“It’s just disgusting,” Zohar says. “She’s so upset – it really is sending her back to the ’70s when she couldn’t get out of the Soviet Union. I don’t understand what’s going on.”  

Until recently, Nativ, which operates under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office, has traditionally been responsible for reviewing and approving applications for aliyah from the former communist bloc, where it operates a network of Russian-speaking envoys. 

This division of power was borne from the premise that Jewish Agency officials did not have the experience or skills required to evaluate applications from the former communist countries.

Seth Farber, director of the advocacy group ITIM, says his organization has been working with the Jewish Agency over the past several years to change protocols for immigrants like the Olikers, as interest in aliyah has grown among immigrants from the former Soviet Union now living in the West.

The Olikers are not alone, he says, noting that ITIM has had to step in to assist families in similar situations – including former refuseniks.

While officially their path is supposed to have been smoothed since early 2021, Farber says this message seemingly hasn’t reached all levels of the Israeli government who must give final approval to those seeking aliyah.

The key to the problem, he says, “are clerks in the Interior Ministry who are unaware of these updated protocols” and “aren’t amply sensitized” to the experiences of people like the Olikers. 

“The truth is that part of this has to do with the rigidness of Israel’s immigration policy. In particular, it doesn’t take into account the dramatic history of refuseniks.”

Haaretz reached out to the Interior Ministry for comment, but it had not responded at press time.

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