News Analysis: Ncsj Decision Charts New Course for Soviet Jewry Movement in U.S.
Menu JTA Search

News Analysis: Ncsj Decision Charts New Course for Soviet Jewry Movement in U.S.

Download PDF for this date

Since its adoption in 1975, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment has been the most tangible proof of the U.S. government’s intentions on Soviet Jewry.

As the late Sen. Henry Jackson, the Democrat from Washington, described it in its earliest stages, the law would say to Soviet leaders that Congress is determined to grant favorable trade status only if the Soviets would reciprocate and grant emigration from the Soviet Union.

So it has stood for 14 years, from the heights of Jewish emigration in the late 1970s to its depths in the mid-1980s.

By voting Tuesday to conditionally favor a waiver of the amendment, the National Conference on Soviet Jewry has set a new course for the Soviet Jewry movement.

The new policy signals to the Bush admin istration that it has leeway to urge a waiver without incurring the wrath of large segments of the American Jewish community.

The policy recognizes that emigration is at a 10-year high and that U.S.-Soviet relations are warming. While making note of “old patterns of behavior and authority” that still plague Soviet emigration policy, the new policy acknowledges that enormous changes are under way within Soviet society.

But despite the apparent consensus reached among most of the 47 national Jewish organizations and 300 local federations and community councils that make up the conference, there is still disagreement within the Jewish community.


One voting member of the conference called the decision “a betrayal of Soviet Jews,” and the second largest Soviet Jewry coalition clearly disapproves of the new direction.

The most vocal opponent to the new policy within the NCSJ coalition is Rabbi Avi Weiss, chairman of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry.

Weiss said Wednesday that while the NCSJ position only asks for “appropriate assurances” of progress in four key areas of Soviet emigration policy, Soviet Jews themselves are asking that the Soviets be measured only on their actual “performance.”

“I am not aware of one major refusenik who does not talk about Jackson-Vanik in terms of performance. That is why this is a betrayal,” Weiss said in a telephone interview.

He said Soviet Jews have “begged” that Jackson-Vanik not be waived until the Soviets demonstrate improved performance for at least a year.

Weiss cast one of only three no votes at Tuesday’s NCSJ Board of Governors meeting.

The Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, representing 50 local chapters and 100,000 members, is not a voting member of NCSJ.

But its national president made her disappointment clear in a telephone interview Tuesday, saying her organization will not support a waiver until the Soviets codify improvements in their emigration law.

“Assurances can only be delivered in the form of legislation,” said Pamela Cohen of Chicago. “We have to turn assurances into tangible results and to provide for a reliable way to guarantee the sustainable levels.

“If the Sovets are repeatedly telling us that they will deal with emigration through a legislative capacity, then it is incumbent on us simply to hold out until they do that.”


Martin Wenick, executive director of NCSJ, said he did not disagree with Weiss or Cohen that the Soviets should be measured in “words and deeds.”

He said Wednesday that the Bush administration “is waiting now for the Soviets to introduce legislation.” The president, he said, “has tried to stimulate that process.”

Wenick also acknowledged that there are “differences of views” between NCSJ and members of the refusenik community in the Soviet Union. But he said he world “reject categorically” Weiss’ contention that the NCSJ decision was a “betrayal” of their interests.

“We share a common objective, but disagree on how we can best achieve that,” he said. “Our sense is that the time has started to come, when changes are taking place, to test the Soviets as to their words.”

The metaphor employed by many activists to describe their tactics is that of the “carrot and the stick.” Their disagreements boil down to whether to continue to use the “stick” — the punitive measures contained in Jackson-Vanik — or whether to use the “carrot” by easing those restrictions.

The split also reflects contrasting philosophies between the so-called “establishment” NCSJ and the self-described “grass-roots” Union of Councils.

NCSJ, drawing its leadership from the major American Jewish organizations and community councils, has been said to take a pragmatic approach that weighs a wider view of United States, Soviet and Israel relations, along with the best interests of Soviet Jews.


By contrast, the Union of Councils and the Student Struggle see themselves working directly on behalf of Soviet Jews, holding their interests above political considerations.

Cohen, for instance, said Jackson-Vanik “was not designed to be used as part of a negotiating process between the U.S. and the Soviets, but to provide for free emigration.”

Said Weiss: “Who in the world is the American Jewish community serving? Are we serving ourselves or Soviet Jews?”

Wenick, the executive director of NCSJ, remains adamant that the NCSJ has formulated a policy that is in the best interest of the Soviet Jews still awaiting permission to emigrate. The strength of the NCSJ position, he said, is borne out in the overwhelming support it received from members Tuesday.

Within the organization, that means the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, representing 113 local community relations agencies; the great majority of American Jewish federations; and membership groups such as the American Jewish Congress.

Beyond the NCSJ coalition, there is also the World Jewish Congress.

Its executive director, Elan Steinberg, called the NCSJ decision “a positive development” and “essentially the position we brought before the International Council of Soviet Jewry, whose presidium we co-chair.”

But Cohen of the Union of Councils said, “I don’t know to what extent the grass-roots chapters and activists will feel bound by this position.”

Jackson-Vanik provides for free emigration from the Soviet Union, she said, “and we aren’t there yet.”

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund