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Exclusive Interview: U.S. Rabbi Who Met with Top Kremlin Officials Says New Internal Openness Could

An American rabbi who met last month with top Soviet officials said Sunday that he believes significant internal changes underway there will improve Jewish emigration and religious freedom.

Rabbi Arthur Schneier of New York, the president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, was the only Jewish leader invited to address the religious portion of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s February 14-16 international forum “for a nuclear-free world.”

Schneier told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he formulated his views at the conference and from private meetings with leading government and religious officials.

They included Konstantin Kharchev, the chairman of the Council on Religious Affairs; Anatoly Dobrynin, Secretary of International Relations of the Central Committee; Georgi Arbatov of the USA Institute; and dissident scientist Andrei Sakharov, who also attended the forum. Schneier added that he spoke briefly with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at a reception.

“What is clear is there is presently a review of all refuseniks. This was told to me on the highest levels,” Schneier said. The rabbi said officials also told him that the justification for refusal referred to as “state secrets” would now have to be substantiated by the local authorities. In the past, emigration officials did not have to prove possession of state secrets.

Schneier said he saw tangible evidence of the new “glasnost” (openness) during the visit. He received permission from the government to send in 5,000 bibles and 5,000 prayer books printed in Russian and Hebrew. The Soviet government also agreed to allow two young Jewish men to attend the Rabbinical seminary in Budapest, Hungary, the only such institute in Eastern Europe.

Schneier was asked to deliver his address to the religious section on Saturday morning. But because he observes the Sabbath, Schneier sent a colleague to read his speech. Instead, the rabbi gave a sermon at the Moscow Choral Synagogue.

He said his forum address touched on the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident, the threat of nuclear Holocaust and his own experience as a Holocaust survivor. But it also called on the Soviet leadership to live up to its international obligations on human rights and encouraged the glasnost.

NO SUCH SPEECH SEVERAL YEARS AGO

“A few years ago, I could never have delivered this kind of address,” Schneier said. “I did not sanitize my speech. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have been invited to give that talk.”

A possible sign that the speech was well received came in the final communique on the whole conference. It included the concluding passage of Schneier’s address, quoted from Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? If I care only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”

The forum ended in the Kremlin with Gorbachev addressing the entire plenum. “You can’t help but sense more openness,” Schneier said. “There is an open admission of mistakes.”

Schneier said the open discussion of human rights is in itself a major advance. “There were days of total denial of the Jewish problem. Today, you can talk about refuseniks, you can talk about emigration,” he said.

SEES DEEP CHANGES

While skeptics claim the new openness is simply cosmetic, treating only the most high-profile cases of dissidents, Schneier said he believes the changes will penetrate deeper in time.

“There is a realization of stagnation, both ideological and economical. Unless there is a new approach, the Soviet Union is just going to fall far behind as we enter the 21st century. His approach is much more pragmatic than ideological,” Schneier said.

The rabbi’s accomplishments perhaps may be attributed as much to his relationship with top Soviet officials as to glasnost. He is one of the few private American citizens, like industrialist Armand Hammer, who have developed over many years a rapport with the Soviet leadership. He has visited the Soviet Union 19 times in 21 years.

The Appeal of Conscience Foundation is an interfaith organization of business and religious leaders to promote religious freedom throughout the world, understanding and cooperation between religions.

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