National Jewish organizations expressed appreciation today that the Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke out on behalf of Soviet Jews during an impromptu 45-minute face-to-face exchange with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva yesterday. Gorbachev, pressed on the subject by the outspoken Black American civil rights leader, denied Jews had problems in the USSR.
Daniel Thursz, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, praised Jackson for making a “forceful appeal” for Soviet Jews. In a statement released here, Thursz said: “The fact that the Rev. Jackson pressed the issue with such persistence should help convince the Soviets that concern for Soviet Jewry is not limited to Jews but is shared by a broad based cross-section of Americans.”
SUPPORT IS WELCOMED
In New York, Jerry Goodman, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, said: “Both we and Jewish activists in the Soviet Union have always welcomed support from a wide range of individuals and groups. Rev. Jesse Jackson, who does represent a specific segment of American society, over a year ago expressed interest and concern for Soviet Jews and pledged to be helpful. We are glad that he has followed through on his pledge, especially since he was in a unique situation to face Gorbachev directly.”
Thursz said B’nai B’rith “deeply appreciates” Jackson’s forthright appeal and commends the American Black leader for presenting the case “so persuasively and effectively.” Gorbachev’s response, he said, was “evasive and obfuscating.”
The Jackson-Gorbachev encounter took place in the lobby of the Soviet Mission during an intermission in Gorbachev’s summit talks with President Reagan. It was witnessed by groups of American anti-war activists, high ranking Soviet officials, security guards and television crews, but only a small number of reporters because it was an unscheduled event.
Mark Epstein, executive director of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, said in Washington that he thought it was “a very good thing” for Jackson to raise the issue with Gorbachev because it is an issue that any clergyman, politician, public or private fig- ure “should raise with any Soviet official on every possible occasion.” He added that when this issue is raised by Americans of any group, it “reflects to the Soviets a broad-based concern” for Soviet Jews.
Jackson went to Geneva on behalf of a coalition of groups that collected more than a million signatures on petitions calling for a ban on nuclear weapons tests. He addressed the Soviet leader on that subject, on the role of non-aligned nations in verifying agreements, on the situation in South Africa and on the plight of Soviet Jews.
Jackson said the latter subject had to be raised because “there is a great anxiety among the American people about the plight of Soviet Jews.” He told Gorbachev that if the elimination of that anxiety is a result of the summit conference, “it will go a long ways to establish the bonds of mutual trust” between the U.S. and USSR.
Jackson and Gorbachev spoke through interpreters. Their discussion was described by witnesses as spontaneous and forthright and the Soviet leader seemed forthcoming on the need to avoid an arms race. But his voice, though not his expression, took a hard edge when Jackson, eliciting no response to his first mention of Soviet Jews, raised the issue a second time.
REACTION BY GORBACHEV
“We would like to say that Jews are part of the Soviet people,” Gorbachev said. “They are fine people. They contribute a lot to the development of our country. They are very talented people.” He added, “therefore the so-called problem of Jews in the Soviet Union does not exist.” Or if it exists it is only “with those who like to mar relations.”
Thursz said that contrary to what Gorbachev stated, Soviet Jews are subjected to “blatant discrimination” in jobs, education, trying to preserve their Jewish identity or seeking to emigrate.
Jackson, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1984, was sharply criticized by American Jews for his openly pro-Palestinian sentiments, his refusal to repudiate the support of Louis Farrakhan, the anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam, and his “Hymietown” remarks during the election campaign.
Although he has no official status in Geneva, he was the only one of the hundreds of American activists there for the summit to meet with Gorbachev and engage him in serious conversation. The fact that he used that occasion to appeal on behalf of Soviet Jews came as a surprise.
In New York, Glenn Richter, national coordinator of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency today with respect to Jackson’s intervention that “One appreciates all efforts on behalf of Soviet Jews. The question is whether one is using the issue or whether one feels for the issue.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.