Behind the Headlines Gorbachev, Helsinki and Soviet Jewry
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Behind the Headlines Gorbachev, Helsinki and Soviet Jewry

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Helsinki Accord signatories are already preparing for the next review conference scheduled for Vienna in November. Soviet Jews and their co-religionists in the West are also focusing on the conference, for it will constitute a barometer on how the Kremlin plans to treat the critical issue of Jewish emigration.

What can be expected from Kremlin boss Mikhail Gorbachev? The recent meeting of the Helsinki signatories in Bern (April 15-May 27), where I served as a “public member” of the U.S. delegation, suggested that Gorbachev was determined to violate his own verbal commitments to “humanitarianism.”

At the Geneva summit last year, Gorbachev joined President Reagan in providing assurances on the vital need “of resolving humanitarian cases in the spirit of cooperation.” More significant was the commitment extended by the Kremlin leader in his major policy speech at the 27th Communist Party Congress this past February 25th.

Among the few “fundamental principles” which Gorbachev listed as a guide for Soviet action was the obligation to handle a “positive spirit of humanitarianism questions related to the reunification of families…”


But neither in the Bern forum nor in the behind-the-scenes bilateral discussions with several Western delegations, would the Soviet representatives say anything positive about allowing exit visas to the several hundred thousand Soviet Jews who seek to be reunited with families in Israel.

The contrary was the case, as indicated by the Soviet response on May 1 to a strong American presentation. Ambassador Michael Novak, head of the U.S. delegation, after delivering an eloquent address about the plight of Soviet Jews and particularly about the poignant fate of the “refuseniks,” distributed to the 35 delegations a list of several dozen of the most pressing humanitarian emigration cases, featuring widely-known refusenik names. The Soviet delegate exploded in anger. Distribution of the list was called “libelous” and “McCarthyism.”

In private bilateral meetings, Soviet officials were even sharper in their negative response. They refused to discuss any of the refusenik names. As far as the USSR was concerned, emigration was a closed book. They would not send Jews to an alleged “war danger zone” of Israel nor to areas of “occupied Palestine.” And they made a point of disparaging the “drop-outs” in Vienna who were defined contemptuously as mere “illegals.”

If, in previous Helsinki meetings, notably in Madrid, Soviet delegates linked Jewish emigration to detente, and suggested that the flow would resume once Soviet-American relations and considerably improved, now references to the linkage were negligible. Instead, Soviet officials, in one important private discussion, emphasized that further consideration of Basket 3 — which covers “reunion of families” — was no longer warranted.

Especially disturbing was a Kremlin drive during the last few days of the Bern meeting to restrict all emigration and travel issues exclusively to the 35 “participating” states of Europe and North America. When pressed on “why,” Soviet delegates made clear that they wished to exclude emigration of Jews to Israel. If the Soviets were rebuffed at Bern, it can be expected that they will try again in Vienna.

From the Gorbachev viewpoint, Jewish emigration is dead. And he has underscored his perspective by reducing the emigration rate to the lowest level in almost a quarter of a century. During the first six months of this year, only 386 Jews were allowed exit visas, which is one quarter less than even the tiny level of last year. The lowest monthly figure came on the eve of the Bern meeting, thereby demonstrating Gorbachev’s contempt for his own “humanitarian” commitments.

Besides, the Kremlin has stepped up its campaign against Jewish self-study groups which aspire to perpetuate the Hebrew cultural and Judaic traditions. The assault upon Jewish consciousness has the obvious aim of dissipating emigration notions.

How to respond to the serious thrust of the Kremlin at the credibility of the Helsinki Accord is of urgent and vital importance to the Jewish community and to the democratic world. At stake is the future of Soviet Jewry and its fundamental and legitimate right to be reunited with kin in Israel.

Linkage must be at the center of Western strategy at Vienna just as it stands at the heart of the Helsinki accord. At Bern, Soviet delegates privately spoke of the need to move from Basket 3 to Basket 2 covering trade. It is up to the West to make it clear that progress in the trade and other Helsinki areas depends upon progress covering Soviet Jewish emigration.

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