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Jewish Groups Split over Exempting Former Soviet States from Trade Bill

A split in the Jewish community over how best to encourage completely free emigration from the former Soviet Union was evident at hearings this week on Capitol Hill.

The issue under discussion at a House Ways and Means trade subcommittee hearing Tuesday was whether or not to exempt Russia permanently from the Jackson-Vanik amendment.

The amendment, a Cold War-era statute, links the granting of most-favored-nation trading status to Russia and other countries to their emigration policies.

Some advocates for Soviet Jewry believe that current conditions in Russia indicate that this is not the time to exempt the country from provisions of the 1974 amendment.

On the other hand, some in the Jewish community believe that democratic forces in Russia would benefit from an exemption, which would in turn help the Jewish community there.

The congressional hearing took place as the Clinton administration reviews the Jackson-Vanik amandment.

Currently, U.S. policy is to grant the Russians one-year waivers of the Jackson-Vanik restrictions, in recognition of the progress Russia has made in its emigration policies.

This policy meets with the approval of most Jewish organizations.

But at the summit meeting between President Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin in April, Yeltsin urged Clinton to remove Jackson-Vanik restrictions against his country permanently.

In 1974, just over 20,000 Jews were allowed to leave the Soviet Union. In recent years, however, emigration has skyrocketed, with nearly 600,000 Jews emigrating from the former Soviet Union since 1989, according to figures from the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

The National Conference, a coalition representing the Jewish organizational establishment, was one of the groups testifying at Tuesday’s hearing that while one-year waivers were acceptable, Russia should not be permanently exempted from the Jackson-Vanik amendment.

Both the National Conference and the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, another group championing the rights of Jews in the former Soviet Union, argued at the hearing that as long as there are still Jews in Russia not allowed to emigrate, the amendment should not be permanently repealed.

In addition, many in the Jewish community are concerned about the continuing economic and political instability in Russia. They point out that Yeltsin’s standing is threatened by a coalition of nationalists and former Communists, many of whom are anti-Semitic.

Harold Luks, a member of the National Conference’s executive committee who chairs the group’s Jackson-Vanik committee, told the sub-committee that his organization opposed “any legislative measure to repeal the amendment, to suspend the waiver requirement or to remove any (former Soviet) state from its scope” at this time.

Luks said there are currently “more than 200 refuseniks, most of whom are in Russia,” who are “still denied the right to emigrate due to ‘state secrecy’ policies.'”

Gideon Aronoff, assistant director for government relations of the Union of Councils, testified that Russia should not be exempted from all further compliance with Jackson-Vanik.

He cited the facts that there are still refuseniks in Russia, the institution and apparatus for refusal remain in place and none of the former Soviet republics has enacted a freedom of emigration law complying with international standards.

The Union of Councils provided the members of Congress with a list of current refuseniks.

On the other hand, the American Jewish Congress, also testifying at the hearing, believes that “the merits of repealing Jackson-Vanik outweigh the limited benefits of leaving the statute on the books,” according to Julian Spirer, chair of the governing council of the American Jewish Congress.

Spirer testified that the current number of Jews leaving Russia showed that the amendment had reached its goal. Russia would benefit from unrestricted trade, he said, adding that minorities traditionally do better when the economy is stronger.

Also on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, B’nai B’rith was circulating a letter from Sidney Clearfield, the group’s executive vice president, to members of Congress, urging a continuation of the Jackson-Vanik one-year waiver process for Russia.

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