Behind the Headlines: Ups and Downs of Jewish Emigration Linked to U.s.-soviet Relations
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Behind the Headlines: Ups and Downs of Jewish Emigration Linked to U.s.-soviet Relations

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For nearly two decades, Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union has risen and fallen — not predictably like the tides, but in a discernable pattern of sharp ups and downs that seem to be linked to the state of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Observers will argue whether the Nixon-Kissinger policy of detente was responsible for the highs of 1972 and 1973, when Jewish emigration soared to almost 35,000 a year, or whether passage of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the Trade Reform Act of 1974 caused it to drop to barely 13,221 the following year.

Jackson-Vanik, also known as the Freedom of Emigration Amendment, denies most-favored-nation trade status to the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc countries, which restrict the right of their citizens to emigrate.

But the amendment provides that the restrictions can be waived year-to-year if the president and Congress find there is a significant change in these restrictive policies.

More Jews left the USSR in 1976 than in 1975, and Jewish emigration again hit 16,736 in 1977 and nearly 29,000 in 1978. Supporters of the Soviet Jewry movement in the United States maintain that Jackson-Vanik was instrumental in the release of many tens of thousands of Jews, because it is the clearest and most effective expression of America’s commitment to the fundamental principle of free emigration — and the Soviets recognize this.


The all-time peak year was 1979, when 51,320 Jews were permitted to leave the Soviet Union. But in 1980, the figure slumped below 22,000. Many attribute this to President Jimmy Carter’s objections to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Relations between Washington and Moscow soured with the onset of the Reagan years. As the diplomatic temperatures approached freezing, the allowed departures of Jews from the Soviet Union fell dramatically.

In 1981, the total was 9,447. In 1982, only 2,688 Jews were permitted to leave. The nadir was reached in 1984, when only 896 Jews emigrated. In 1986, the number was 914, an improvement but hardly an upswing.

But the picture has brightened suddenly this year. So far, 7,250 Jews have left the Soviet Union since January, the most in any single year since 1981.

Again, the barometer appears to be the state of U.S.-Soviet relations. President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev will hold their third summit meeting — the first in the capital of either superpower — and this time they are to sign a treaty reducing intermediate range nuclear ballistic missiles.

The pact is earnestly sought by both leaders. Reagan has pledged that human rights, including the right to emigrate, will be high on the agenda of his two days of talks with Gorbachev.

The thousands of Jews and others who poured into Washington Sunday for the massive pre-summit demonstration hope to impress the Communist leader and bind Reagan to his commitment.

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