Focus on Issues Conference Wrestles with Problem of Publicizing Issue of Soviet Jewry

The more than 60 Jewish leaders from 14 countries, who met here last week for three days at the semi-annual meeting of the presidium of the World Conference on Soviet Jewry, wrestled with the problem of bringing the issue of Soviet Jewry once again to the attention of world public opinion.

In addition, they wanted to encourage Jews in the Soviet Union where emigration has dropped to a “trickle” not to lose hope. “We want to send a message to our people, our brothers in Soviet Russia, that they should know we have not forgotten them and will continue the struggle until they are allowed to leave,” Leon Dulzin, chairman of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization Executives, declared. He is also chairman of the World Conference.

The presidium decided to schedule a Third Brussels Conference on World Jewry for October 24-26 in Brussels or some other West European city. The First Brussels Conference in 1971 and the second in 1976 did serve to focus world attention on the efforts of Jews to emigrate from the USSR and the harassment of Jewish activists in the Soviet Union.

Since 1970, some 260,000 Jews have emigrated from the Soviet Union, 185,000 of them settling in Israel, according to Dulzin. The high point for emigration was 1979, when nearly 52,000 Jews left the USSR. But in 1980, the number dropped to 21,000 and only 9,447 were allowed to emigrate last year. In addition, there has been increased harassment and arrests of Jewish activists, an “assault” upon Jewish culture and religion and anti-Semitic policies and practices.

TWO REASONS FOR THE DECLINE

Two major reasons for the decline were offered at the presidium: the deterioration in relations between the United States and the Soviet Union since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in July, 1979; and the Kremlin’s reaction to the increased rate of dropouts (Soviet Jews who go to some other country than Israel) which rose to 85 percent last year.

Dulzin, as can be expected from someone intimately involved with aliya on a day-to-day basis, is the leading exponent of the second argument. He told the presidium meeting that the Soviets accepted Jewish emigration on the grounds of family reunion and the return of Jews to their ancient homeland , Israel.

But, he said, when the majority of Jews go to other countries, particularly the United States, the Soviet government cannot justify it since they see this as a rejection of the Communist regime. Dulzin said this point was stressed to him in a letter from the Chief Rabbi of Moscow.

The other view is held by American Jews. Theodore Mann, chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, has been saying for several months that Soviet Jews are being held hostage to improve relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Sen. Alan Cranston (D. Calif.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told the presidium that there was a “linkage” between improved relations and increased Jewish emigration.

At the same time, presidium members, especially those from outside the U.S. were encouraged by the words of support they heard at the meeting from members of Congress, representing both parties, and that a delegation received during a meeting with Vice President George Bush at the White House Friday. “We were greatly encouraged by the assistance we got in Washington,” Dulzin said.

The delegation meeting with Bush included Dulzin; Mann; Howard Squadron, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Claude Kelman, of the Representative Council of French Jewry; and Isi Leibler, of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.

Mann later told a press conference at the B’nai B’rith International headquarters, where the three-day meeting was held, that Bush said that the issue of Soviet Jewry is of the “highest priority” for the Reagan Administration and the Administration “will never back down from it. We are not in such a delicate situation with the Soviets that we couldn’t do something,” like issuing a “statement of principle,” Bush was quoted as saying.

Congressmen like Jack Kemp (R. NY) stressed to the presidium during the meeting that all Americans support the Soviet Jewry issue, whether Jews or Gentiles, Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives. Sen. Henry Jackson (D. Wash.) pledged that the Jackson-Vanik amendment which links most-favored-nation trade benefits for the Soviet Union with increased emigration from the USSR will remain law.

CONCERN ABOUT WEST EUROPEAN GOVERNMENTS

At the same time, many Americans expressed concern that West European governments, intent on preserving detente and particularly trade with the Soviets, will not give the necessary backing for Soviet Jews.

Spencer Oliver, director of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors the 1975 Helsinki accords, said there is concern that the West Europeans will not back the U.S. on human rights issues when the meeting to review the 1975 accords resumes in Madrid February 9. He said West Europe has become a “battleground” where the Soviet Union is trying to wean the Europeans away from support of the U.S.

Rep. Samuel Gejdenson (D, Conn.) also stressed the importance of enlisting West European governments in support of Soviet Jewry. Dulzin told the press conference that support from all groups in West Europe will be sought, even some Communists.

AREAS OF PUBLIC SUPPORT

Stanley Lowell, a former chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, said it was important to get the peace movement in Europe to support the rights of Soviet Jews. He noted that when he first entered the movement for Soviet Jewry about 18 years ago, many argued that demonstrations would have no affect. But he said the fight for Soviet Jewry has demonstrated that the Soviet Union does pay attention to public opinion.

Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp, head of the Soviet Jewry movement in The Netherlands, noted that the issue does have support at least in Holland. He said some half million Dutch people recently signed a petition in support of Soviet Jewry.

Meanwhile the presidium members ended their meeting with a commitment, as Jackson said, “to see to it that this issue is on the front burner at all times.” In a manifesto issued at the end of the meeting, the presidium declared: “Brussels III shall demonstrate our unflinching determination to participate in the fulfillment of the aspirations of Soviet Jewry….”

NEXT STORY