Behind the Headlines the Road to Brussels Ii
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Behind the Headlines the Road to Brussels Ii

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In February, 1953, 23 years ago, the East West cold war was at its height. The U.S. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, was talking about “brinkmanship” and the “Iron Curtain” which had fallen across Europe at the end of World War II seemed an unmovable fixture. In Moscow, the Soviet secret police, KGB, was investigating the so-called “doctors’ plot” and observers in the West feared that Stalin might order any day a mass deportation of Jews to Siberia.

In spite of the icy despair which hung over Europe, a wave of anxiety spread throughout the world when Stalin died on March 5, 1953. Jewish leaders feared the situation of Soviet Jewry might worsen further, and in Israel the press wondered whether the dictator’s death might not spell the end “of the friendly relations” between the USSR and Israel.

It is by a strange twist of history that Israel relied at that time mainly on the Soviet Union’s help and assistance. The USSR had announced on Oct, 13, 1947 that it would vote for the UN Palestine partition plan. When this was approved a few weeks later, the Soviet Ambassador, Semyon Tsarapkin, opened a bottle of vodka to toast Israel’s “prosperity and independence” with the Jewish Agency observer, Moshe Sharett.

The Soviet Union was the first country to recognize Israel “de jure” and Soviet-made arms flowed to Israel’s fledgling forces fighting off seven Arab invading armies.


In 1953, Israel was far weaker, lonelier and isolated than one can even recall. America’s Eisenhower Administration was dreaming about a strong Arab League as a Western defense on the Soviet Union’s southern flank and Dulles was actively wooing the Arabs. Britain was still openly hostile and France’s troubles in North Africa were only beginning.

Though no one in Israel forgot the plight of Soviet Jews, the time seemed highly inappropriate to alienate the only helpful power Israel had anywhere in the world.

Israel’s first envoy to Moscow, Golda Meir, who appropriately enough will be the president of honor at the Second World Conference on Soviet Jewry which begins tomorrow in Brussels, witnessed and reported to the Israeli government that Jewish throngs danced, cheered and sang Hebrew songs when she visited for the first time the Moscow Synagogue. “Reasons of state” and the hope that quiet diplomacy might help “arrange matters” prevailed, however.

The 1967 Six-Day War, the outright Soviet support for the Arabs, the Soviet decision to break diplomatic relations with Israel and the realization that nothing more can be lost and everything won, made the break between the Jewish people and Moscow unavoidable. By a strange twist of history, Israel’s Premier at that time was Mrs. Meir, who 19 years earlier had seen the Jewish crowds in Moscow.


The only weapon Israel and the Jewish people had were words to arouse public opinion and shame the Soviet Union. The 1970 Leningrad trial and the ensuing death sentences raised public fervor to a new pitch. In February, 1971, the first Brussels conference convened.

Two options existed at that time: one favored, by the World Jewish Congress President Nahum Goldmann which called on the Soviet Union to grant its Jews the rights to which they were entitled by the Soviet constitution, the possibility to establish religious and cultural centers of their own and permission for a “reunification of families” scheme. This approach took into consideration the fact that less than 15,000 Jews had been allowed to leave the USSR since the end of World War II, and the belief that the bulk of the Soviet Union’s Jews would remain where they were and thus be given the right to develop their own institutions.

The other major option, advocated by Israel, the Jewish Agency and a large part of the world Jewish leadership, believed the main struggle should be on behalf of free Jewish emigration. At the end of the first conference it was clear that the second thesis had won. A major offensive was launched and within weeks after the end of the conference, the Soviet Union started issuing exit visas. In the five years since then some 110,000 Jews were permitted to leave the Soviet Union.


The Brussels II conference is meeting with a new unity of purpose. Practically all the 1000 delegates from 30 countries agree that the effort must continue to be for emigration. The conference sponsors also believe that its very existence will help Soviet Jews to organize themselves and continue to press their demands for permission to leave. Conference sources believe that the Soviet Jews will invariably know that the conference is being held and will see it as an encouragement to continue their struggle.

The Soviet government, which substantially reduced in 1974 the number of exit visas granted (20,000, from 35,000 in 1973) will be forced, conference sources believe, to increase the number of exit permits granted if it wants to keep up the climate of detente. The Angola intervention makes it more imperative than ever before for the Soviets to show “good will” and a humanitarian sentiment, if it wants to erase the effects of its military adventure in Black Africa.

Brussels II will be a “talk shop” but conference sources feel that words are the most potent weapon Jews have in their struggle with the Soviet leadership.

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