Menu JTA Search

Peres: Concern for Soviet Jews Fuels Efforts for Israel-soviet Relations

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres says he is “deeply worried” about the ongoing shrinkage of Soviet Jewry through assimilation, intermarriage and actually opting out of Jewish identity.

“This is the reason why I strive so hard to foster relations with the Soviet Union: so that we can maintain ties with the Jews who live there,” he explained.

Peres spoke to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an exclusive interview on the eve of Rosh Hashanah which focused on issues high on the agenda of world Jewry.

He said that peace between Israel and its neighbors could be the Archimedean point from which the Jewish State could shape the course of the Jewish people. Hence, his unceasing quest for diplomatic progress towards peace.

Peres is due to meet with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in New York before Rosh Hashana (Sept. 24) to seek agreement on a format for an international peace conference on the Middle East.

“If there were peace, more Jews would come to live in Israel. Jews would feel closer to Israel. After all, the extent of Israel’s attractiveness to world Jewry is the crucial question,” he said.

STATISTICAL AND REAL JEWS

Returning repeatedly to his concern for the future of the estimated 2.5 million Jews in the USSR, Peres said: “There is a big difference between statistical Jews and real Jews… The trend towards disappearance there in the Soviet Union seems to me very serious indeed. The drop-out phenomenon of Soviet Jews who emigrate to Israel but choose other destinations is the other side of the coin…”

Peres denied that he was accepting the late Nahum Goldmann’s persistent belief that Israel and world Jewry focus on Soviet Jewry’s domestic condition in addition to their right to leave. “The main thrust of our effort has to be towards aliya (immigration to Israel),” Peres said. “I am not in favor of encouraging Jewish life in the diaspora. In the final analysis, I am convinced that the existence of the Jewish people depends, now more than ever, upon the existence of the State of Israel. That goes for both physical existence and spiritual existence…”

Regarding the two conditions he laid down earlier this year for Soviet participation in Mideast peacemaking, Peres said “There certainly is progress” on the matter of Soviet Jewry. “We can’t say there isn’t.”

“They have released all the Prisoners of Zion — and not incarcerated others in their place. They have increased the number of exit permits: The rate has gone up from a hundred per month to nearly a thousand. They allow a greater degree of freedom for religious worship.

“All these are changes which I greatly appreciate. They are not enough. There must be more.” On the second condition — the resumption of diplomatic relations with Israel — the Foreign Minister seemed less sanguine. “I have felt,” he said, “that we ought to reach agreement with them before an international (peace) conference is convened, at least on the procedure for a conference. And I have told them so.

“But now they are preoccupied with the disarmament negotiations. And we, meanwhile, cannot reach agreement among ourselves on this issue, which to my mind is a great pity… We are missing an important opportunity.

“In essence, what the Likud says is that while all the other parties talk to the Russians, we should say ‘nyet’ and refuse to talk to them. The Likud’s entire opposition to an international conference flows from their rejection of Soviet participation.”

The Soviets, moreover, seem not to understand Peres’ need to reach diplomatic understandings with them in order to be able to persuade public opinion in Israel to try an international conference. “They say, we have time, what’s the hurry? And of course the Russians do have time… It is very frustrating…”

The former Premier also developed his vision of Israel-at-peace as a guiding force in Jewish history. “For 40 years Israel had been preoccupied with defending itself. Now we must begin to become what Ben-Gurion called a unique nation–a nation at peace, playing a uniquely constructive role in the Middle East,” he stated.

CRITICAL OF SOME DIASPORA LEADERS

He claimed that some Jewish leaders abroad tended to be inward-looking and didn’t seem to recognize the singular importance of peace. Yet, others did appreciate “the broad picture,” Peres said. “We must have a clear hierarchy of priorities,” he declared.

He conceded that he faced “a problem” when Jewish leaders failed to understand and support his need to compromise at home over some issues in order to mold a majority favoring his peace policies.

“We must have a clear hierarchy of priorities,” he declared. “And the goal that we put at the top of the hierarchy must have hegemony over all our efforts. Peace, at this time, is the top priority of Jewish life.” He said that many Jewish leaders did indeed fully understand his order of priorities, “though there are some who understand — and disagree. The period of Likud rule has had its effect on world Jewry. The view that the main thing is territory received legitimation. But in truth the main thing is people, not the territory,” he said.

OTHER ISSUES DISCUSSED

On the current conflict and violence surrounding Sabbath-observance in Jerusalem, Peres said pressures brought to bear by Orthodox groups abroad had little effect or relevance. “The problem is here. It’s here that we have to find ways of dialogue and tolerance,” he said.

And on the currently resurgent problem of U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which troubles American Jewish leaders, Peres said Israel’s own basic position (against such sales) was “consistent. We can’t change it each time a particular arms deal or weapons system come up for considera- tion.” He added that many opponents of the deal in Washington opposed it “not because of Israel–but becauses Saudi Arabia itself did not act properly at the time of crisis.”

He was referring to the failure of Saudi jets to force down the Iraqi jets that attacked the U.S. missile frigate Stark in the Persian Gulf this summer.

Concluding with a Rosh Hashanah greeting through the Jewish press worldwide, Peres said 5748 would be “a vital year in the struggle on behalf of the Jewish community in the USSR, and in the struggle for peace for the Jewish State.

“We go into this struggle as a strong state, militarily. But this strength must be translated, too, into other, positive goals.”

NEXT STORY