Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Special to the JTA Soviet Jewish Activists Plead Cause of Soviet Jewry at Reykjavik Summit

October 15, 1986
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Jewish activists and families of refuseniks from a half dozen countries pleaded the cause of refuseniks from a half dozen countries pleaded the cause of Soviet Jewry at the summit meeting here between President Reagan and Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev, October 11-12. They prayed in public and demonstrated peacefully, joined by Icelandic sympathizers and others. Some activists erected a symbolic cage outside the Hofti House where the two leaders held their final meeting Sunday.

The Soviets, for their part, seemed to offer a slight ray of hope that restrictions on Jewish emigration from the USSR might possibly be eased in the future. One Soviet spokesman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that “things are changing” and hinted that the authorities may be more accommodating in the future.

A member of the Soviet delegation, Samuel Zivs, who came here to deal with “the Jewish issue,” met several refusenik families whom he asked for details of their relatives’ cases and promised to facilitate their departure.


The line taken by official Soviet spokesmen was that while the USSR refuses to let “foreign countries meddle in its internal affairs,” it is now prepared to study some of the issues raised by Soviet Jews on a case-by-case basis “out of humanitarian considerations.”

The Soviets said that message was also relayed to the American delegation with which they met in an ad hoc commission dealing with humanitarian issues, regional conflicts and bilateral affairs.

But these hints were vague and hopes for any substantive change for the better for Soviet Jews diminished after the summit ended Sunday night without agreement on the major issue of arms control, and the U.S. and USSR each blamed the other for the failure.

In private conversations before leaving Reykjavik, Soviet officials claimed that had the talks succeeded, a compromise solution on humanitarian issues would have been reached. “All this is a pity,” one Soviet spokesman said of the summit’s failure.


But the Jewish leaders and others who had converged on the Icelandic capital last week, days before the start of the summit meetings, achieved their objective of bringing the plight of Soviet Jewry to the attention of the superpower leaders while international attention was focused on them. American Jews were represented here by delegations from the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ), headed by its chairman, Morris Abram, and the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry. David Wakesberg of San Francisco, a UCSJ vice president, summarized their purpose last week when he said “We will be presenting cases to the media and delegations and try to insist that Soviet Jews are not forgotten.”

Two Knesset members, Nava Arad of Labor and Uzi Landau of Likud, were part of an Israeli delegation that included relatives of prominent refuseniks. They met with the President of the Icelandic Parliament, Thorvakdur Gardar Kristjansson, who expressed support for the cause of Soviet Jewry.

Arad also met with women members of Parliament whom she asked to take up the cause of “the mothers of the prisoners” in the USSR and to intercede on their behalf.


Especially poignant was the case of Michael Shirman, an immigrant to Israel from the Soviet Union who is suffering from bone cancer and needs a marrow transplant which only his sister, Inessa Flerova, can supply. Flerova has been unable to leave for Israel because an exit visa has been denied her husband, Victor Flerov, to accompany her.

Shirman camped outside the summit meeting hall for two days, sometimes in heavy rain, carrying a poster “to remind President Reagan that he is meeting the man (Gorbachev) who is murdering me.”


On Friday night, two Jewish students from Britain spent the entire night outside the Saga Hotel which housed the Soviet delegation, intoning prayers and reciting the names of 11,000 refuseniks. Other demonstrators held up photographs of long-time refuseniks. They attended Soviet press briefings with posters urging the Kremlin leadership to “prove it has changed by allowing Jews to emigrate.”

Jewish prayer services were led by Yosef Mendelevich who immigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union in 1981. He was joined by an Israeli rabbi, Benjamin Lehman, who noted that custom dictated that in times of crisis, Jews pray in public.

Police refused to permit the service outside the hotel. The group gathered outside the press center, about 150 yards away. Icelandic sympathizers sang with them, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” The Jews sang Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem.

An Icelandic Foreign Ministry spokesman told the JTA, “Everybody is free to demonstrate in our country. The only thing we demand is that the summit meeting should be able to go along undisturbed as planned.”

Jews weren’t the only demonstrators. Two young men unfurled a banner outside the Saga Hotel accusing the Soviets of oppressing the Hare Krishna sect. The Greenpeace movement brought its ship, Sirius, to anchor at the Reykjavik harbor approaches. Coast Guard vessels prevented it from entering the harbor.

Recommended from JTA