Jewish Groups Remain Divided over a Waiver of Jackson-vanik

Jewish groups are split over whether to favor a relaxation of U.S. trade sanctions against the Soviet Union contained in the Jackson-Vanik Amendment.

Pressure to support a waiver of provisions contained in the 14-year-old amendment, which denies U.S. trade benefits to the Soviet Union because of its restrictive emigration policies, comes as Moscow is allowing the largest exodus of Soviet Jews since 1979.

Supporters of a waiver include the World Jewish Congress, the Workmen’s Circle and delegates to the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council plenum in February.

They say that the current emigration figures, averaging more than 3,500 a month since January, justify a waiver of the trade sanctions, which the amendment allows if the Soviets have demonstrated sustained improvement in their record on emigration.

Waiving the sanctions would restore “most-favored-nation” trade status to the Soviet Union, giving the Soviets favorable tariff treatment for their goods.

Proponents of a waiver argue that this would encourage the Soviets to continue their increasingly liberal emigration policies.

They also say that in the period between a recommendation and the Bush administration’s actual call for a waiver, the Soviets would be eager to keep emigration levels high, or revamp their policies altogether, to influence the debate.

CODIFIED EMIGRATION PRACTICES

But others, including the Washington-based Union of Councils of Soviet Jews and former prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky, oppose a waiver until the Soviets put onto the books new legislation guaranteeing the right to emigrate.

“The only guarantee of sustained, high levels is the institutionalized ‘emigration laws and policies’ ” called for in Jackson-Vanik, according to a policy paper prepared by the Union of Councils and released last week.

The laws they want to see codified include abolition of the “family reunification” criterion, currently a Soviet citizen’s sole legal basis for requesting an exit visa; opportunities for legal appeals to those denied emigration on security grounds; and a mechanism for resolving long-term refusenik cases.

The Union of Councils says an estimated 2,000 refuseniks remain in the Soviet Union, and as many as 5,000 more could be refused permission by the end of the year.

“Given the absence of economic progress, severe unrest among ethnic minorities and rising popular anti-Semitism,” the Union of Councils maintains, “there is no basis to predict how long current policies or the recent relatively high monthly emigration figures will be sustained.”

Following the Union of Council’s lead, various Jewish groups will formalize their stands on Jackson-Vanik over the next two months.

On Monday, World Jewish Congress leaders meeting in Montreal will debate the issue. Former U.S. Rep. Charles Vanik (D-Ohio), who co-authored the bill and now supports a one-year waiver, will attend the WJC meeting.

WJC President Edgar Bronfman has all but called for a waiver, saying the Soviets have gone far toward reaching the emigration levels required under Jackson-Vanik.

TWO KEY MEETINGS NEXT MONTH

The National Conference on Soviet Jewry, which has dropped outright opposition to a waiver in favor of an ongoing process of “review and assessment” of trade policy, could make a decision as early as June 13, when its national leadership meets in Washington.

“We have not reached a final decision,” Martin Wenick, NCSJ’s new executive director, told reporters last Thursday at a National Press Club breakfast in Washington. “My sense is that there is still a healthy debate going on” within the Jewish community.

The conference is also known to favor codification of Soviet emigration policy into law before a total relaxation of sanctions.

Also in June, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council will meet in Cincinnati to review NJCRAC’s annual Joint Program Plan, a policy blueprint followed by community relations councils across the country.

While delegates to the NJCRAC plenum in February voted in support of a waiver, they agreed not to implement the policy until the National Conference takes action.

The Workmen’s Circle decided last month to call for a waiver, becoming the first Jewish group to do so explicitly.

As they did when the amendment was first adopted in 1975, government officials will look to the Jewish community for guidance before moving to waive Jackson-Vanik.

But the Bush administration’s task may be complicated if the WJC, Workmen’s Circle and possibly NJCRAC, the National Conference and others line up on one side of the issue, while the Union of Councils, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry and Sharansky’s Jerusalem-based Soviet Jewry Zionist Forum line up on the other.

To waive Jackson-Vanik, President Bush would need to notify Congress that he had received assurances of changes in Soviet emigration policy and that he favored granting the Soviets “most-favored-nation” trade status.

Congress would then have 60 days to overturn the president’s call or work toward fashioning a new U.S.-Soviet trade agreement.

U.S. HOPING FOR UNITY

“Most-favored-nation” status could be withdrawn after a waiver, but both sides acknowledge the process would be a difficult one.

Proponents of a waiver say it would be better for the Jewish community to recommend a waiver before the administration does. To wait for the administration “would undermine the Soviet perception of the influential leadership role played by the organized Jewish community,” according to a NJCRAC document on the pros and cons of the issue.

But opponents say the Bush administration is not yet eager to call for the waiver. Because the number of exportable Soviet goods is so low, they say, there is little business pressure building for a change in Soviet trade policy.

Jewish groups and administration officials both would prefer a unified Jewish response on Jackson-Vanik. But unless the Soviets move dramatically in the coming months, that unity is not likely to be forthcoming.

(JTA correspondent David Friedman in Washington contributed to this report.)

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