The Israeli government and the American Jewish community are divided over what status emigrating Soviet Jews should have with the American government. The United States declares that emigrating Soviet Jews are refugees and therefore have the right to enter the US without restriction. Last year 80 percent of the 1,000 emigrating Soviet Jews decided to come to the US.
The Israeli government is incensed that Soviet Jews should be called refugees. Before they leave the Soviet Union, they are issued Israeli visas, and they are welcomed in Israel.
``This is an affront to Israel,'' said Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir during his recent visit to the US. ``All Jews leaving the Soviet Union are issued Israeli visas. At that moment they are Israeli citizens. They are not refugees. They are not homeless people.''
Mr. Shamir asked both President Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz to change American policy so that Soviet Jews would be treated like any other emigrants. If that happened, Soviet Jews would go to Israel first. The Israelis want the Soviet Jews to come to their country, because they are productive and well-educated.
Shamir appears to have little support among American Jewish groups for changing the refugee status.
``This is not helpful,'' said John Rosenberg of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews. ``I am personally sympathetic to Israel, but I don't feel compelled to sacrifice the lives of thousands of people just because Israel needs a few warm bodies.''
``It's important to have this statement that Soviet Jews are persecuted and refugees,'' said Karl D. Zuckerman, executive vice-president of the Hebrew Immigration and Aid Society. ``They are not merely immigrants coming here without any pressure pushing them out.''
Shamir disagreed. Jews are allowed to emigrate, while other ethnic groups are not, he said, because the Soviet government recognizes the Jews as the one ethnic group in the Soviet Union that has a homeland. But when the Jews do not go to their homeland, he said, then the Soviets can question their reason for leaving.
The Reagan administration does not appear to be ready to change American policy. Both administration policy and federal law say Soviet Jews are refugees, the State Department said.
Asked about his progress in changing American policy, Shamir said only, ``We have made a start.''