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Departing Human Rights Official Praised for Helping Soviet Jews

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Richard Schifter, who resigned this week as U.S. assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, was praised by Jewish leaders for having helped hundreds of thousands of Jews emigrate from the now-defunct Soviet Union.

In 1985, President Reagan named Schifter to be the State Department’s top human rights advocate. Schifter, who is Jewish, succeeded another Reagan-appointed Jew, Elliott Abrams.

With his service under both Reagan and President Bush, Schifter, 68, outlasted all other assistant secretaries in the department.

Schifter said he resigned because it was time to “move out” and that his decision was not “motivated by any disagreement” with U.S. policy.

But Shoshana Bryen, a former executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, which Schifter helped found, said Schifter’s timing may have been linked to Bush’s veto of a bill in Congress that opposed granting most-favored-nation trade status to China.

Schifter’s belief in a tough human rights stand against China “was one of his big things, for sure,” Bryen said.

Pro-Israel activists could not confirm a Washington Times report that Schifter may also have been motivated to leave by his uneasiness with the State Department’s 1992 human rights report, which Schifter may have felt was too harsh on Israel.

But Morris Amitay, treasurer of the Washington PAC, a pro-Israel political action committee, said that “as an American Jew and as someone who has a strong attachment to Israel, he would have every reason to resign from an administration that has been so hostile to Israel.”

‘NO MORE STAUNCH A FRIEND’

David Harris, executive vice president of the American Jewish Committee, said that in recent years in the U.S. government, “there has been no more staunch a friend of Soviet Jews and their right to emigrate” than Schifter.

Micah Naftalin, national director of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, said that after Schifter joined the Reagan administration in 1985, he soon was at the “peak of his productivity” in pressing the then-Soviet Union to allow large numbers of Jews to emigrate.

But in recent months, with the breakup of the Soviet Union into 15 republics, Schifter and other U.S. officials have not done enough to press for human rights improvements, Naftalin charged.

Martin Wenick, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, called it “premature” to say the U.S. government has reacted insufficiently to the new republics.

“Certainly the U.S. government has outlined areas in which it’s interested, including human rights, and it’s up to us now as organizations to monitor what’s going on.

“And should we feel that they are not living up to the standards, we will bring it up to the U.S. government,” Wenick added.

Schifter came to the United States in 1938 as a refugee from Austria. His parents, who stayed behind, later died during the Holocaust.

He will be leaving the State Department post in early April, said Wenick. Bush has yet to nominate a successor.

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