Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Behind the Headlines a Simmering Dispute

April 3, 1987
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The disclosure this week that the Soviet Union agreed to ease the emigration of Soviet Jews and to allow a more liberal policy toward Jews within the Soviet Union–a claim which the Soviets denied Thursday–brought to the surface a long-simmering behind-the-scenes dispute between various Soviet Jewry groups in the United States, revealed in interviews by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency with leading American Soviet Jewry activists.

The essence of the dispute is over who has the mandate to speak for the Jewish community on the issue of Soviet Jews in meetings with Kremlin officials. Should agreements or “deals,” as some view it, be made by American Soviet Jewry activists it, be made by American Soviet Jewry activists in talks in Moscow? How much of the purported agreements and promises by the Russians can be taken seriously?

These questions came to the fore after Morris Abram, chairman of both the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, returned from their trip to Moscow last week and reported this week that they had gained concessions from Soviet officials, whom Abram and Bronfman refused to name.

A day before their disclosure, on Monday, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, reported in The New York Times that the Soviets had agreed to establish a new transit procedure for future Jewish emigres that would eliminate the phenomenon of “neshira” (“dropping out”) of Jews who come to the U.S. instead of Israel.

Schneier emphasized that he had negotiated the new procedure in Moscow and Bucharest in February, and that flights would proceed directly to Israel via an undisclosed city in Rumania. Schneier gave no number of Jews who would be permitted to leave.


Essentially, there was nothing new about these disclosures. Feelers toward this end could be discerned in an interview that Abram gave JTA last December upon his return from Rumania, where he said he had “urged” Rumanian President Nicolae Ceausescu in a private meeting in Bucharest to convey to the Soviets the “lesson of the Rumanian experience” regarding its relationship with its Jewish community and Jewish emigration, and the effect that has had on its relations with the U.S., enabling the granting of Most-Favored-Nation trade status, which the USSR does not enjoy because of the imposition of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment.

Indeed, one of the important claims that Abram and Bronfman made this week was the recommendation of annual waivers of Jackson-Vanik in exchange for stepped-up Jewish emigration, an issue hotly contested by other Soviet Jewry groups.

Schneier made an even more important revelation on March 2 (see March 3 JTA Bulletin) when he told JTA that, based on meetings he held in Moscow in February with high Soviet officials, there would be a significant improvement in Jewish emigration and religious freedom.

At that time, Schneier, chief rabbi of the Park East Synagogue in Manhattan and a frequent visitor to the Soviet Union, met with Anatoly Dobrynin, Secretary of International Relations of the Communist Central Committee; Alexander Yakovlev, Communist Party secretary; Georgi Arbatov, a Central Committee official and head of the USA Institute; dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov; Konstantin Kharchev, chairman of the Council of Religious Affairs, who visited the U.S. in October at Schneier’s invitation–an unprecedented such visit; and even briefly with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.


On Wednesday, Schneier responded to JTA’s inquiry by reiterating that he had indeed been responsible for the negotiations, and that he had briefed Abram on them on his return from Moscow. Schneier gave, however, no number of Jews who would be permitted to leave, but said that “the first part is the clearing up of all refuseniks.”

Last Sunday, Abram told JTA that he and Bronfman had returned from Moscow in an “optimistic” mood regarding Soviet Jewry, but “it would not be productive at this time to go into details.”

However, on Tuesday, a day after Schneier disclosed in the Times what he accomplished in the Soviet Union, Abram provided the media with details of his and Bronfman’s talks in Moscow.

What was new this time were some apparent discrepancies in reported statements by Abram to various news mediums. The Washington Post on Tuesday quoted him as saying that he and Bronfman went to Moscow in official capacity “on behalf of major Jewish organizations in the United States and other Western countries.” He said the same in a printed statement given to the JTA Tuesday. However, an Israel Radio report quoted him as saying that he was not in Moscow in any official capacity.

In addition, Abram said in his statement to the JTA that the Soviets had made specific agreements. But in his Radio Israel interview he said merely that Bronfman and he “have reason to believe that there will be direct flights… increase in immigration… and an expansion of Jewish rights within the Soviet Union.”

Abram also expressed regret in his statement for “the premature publication of statements by other persons who were not involved in their discussions and who hold no representative office in the Jewish community.” The “other persons” were not identified but it presumably referred to Schneier, who was interviewed in The New York Times on Monday.

Abram, in the statement to JTA, said his and Bronfman’s aim, “was to get the ‘Jewish problem’ off the table so as to remove it as an issue of contention.”

Reactions followed immediately.

The sticking point for various Soviet Jewry organizations were media reports that the Soviet Union would allow 11,000-12,000 Jews to leave in the next 9-12 months, without any indication of how many would be allowed to leave annually after that. There are some 380,000 Jews who are seeking to leave the USSR, according to Soviet Jewry activists in the U.S. and Israel. Neither Abram, Bronfman nor Schneier gave any number of Jews who would be permitted to leave.

Glenn Richter, national coordinator of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, pointed out that even if the Soviets actually allowed 11,000-12,000 Jews to leave annually, “At this rate it would take 34-1/2 years for all of them to leave.”

The SSSJ maintains that flexibility in Jackson-Vanik must be accompanied by specific conditions, including a “free process of emigration” that is “routine and institutionalized, free from harassment,” with an annual figure of 60,000, “to which the Kremlin agreed during the 1974 Congressional debate on the Amendment.” In addition, the SSSJ asks for release of Prisoners Of Conscience from labor camps to Israel, with a pledge of no more prisoners, and cessation of harassment of unofficial teachers of Hebrew and Judaism.

Pamela Cohen, president of the Union of Councils of Soviet Jews (UCSJ), was angry that Abram had claimed to represent them. “We did not know that Abram was in the Soviet Union,” she said, “until we heard it from our sources there. We have had no input in this, nor have the people we’re talking about.”

She was equally incensed by talk of waiving the Jackson-Vanik Amendment: “Why are we discussing Jackson-Vanik when there is no movement on the part of the Soviets?” she asked. “One of the reasons that the UCSJ came out in 1979 against Jackson-Vanik was that we knew that the apparatus was closing. I was in Odessa in 1979 and I saw them closing down the OVIR offices from five to two days a week.”

Regarding the number of refuseniks, Cohen said that “the minimum number that we can talk about is 50,000 for whom you can use the word refuseniks. The 11,000 may be long-term refuseniks.” Schneier, in talking about the numbers, said it refers to the list of refuseniks given by Secretary of State George Shultz to Gorbachev at his summit conference with President Reagan in Reykjavik last year.

Cohen also said the Union was also tremendously upset by the proposal to eliminate the option to choose one’s country of destination, which has been enabled at the Vienna and Rome transit camps. “One should be absolutely free to choose where he will go,” Cohen said. Besides, “If we are dealing with direct flights to Israel, at some point politically in the Mideast negotiations and Mideast powerplay, Soviet client states will put pressure on the Soviet government to clamp down on them, and if this arises, if that time coincides with a period of repression and anti-Semitism, like the first two years under the Gorbachev regime, we have closed the escape outlet to the U.S.

“We have to start fighting for the hearts and minds of American Jewry,” Cohen stressed. “They must understand that this issue is very complicated.”

Richter also pointed out that other conditions must be considered, which Abram and Bronfman apparently did not: “The Kremlin did not promise to keep the Gulag free of Jewish prisoners, nor to raise Hebrew teaching to the official status of so many other ethnic languages in the USSR. The private teaching of language is a modification announced by the Soviets several months ago. Permission to import Jewish books would be an extension of the display of thousands of different Jewish titles at Moscow book fairs going back to 1977.”

Richter also said that another consideration is that “Anti-Jewish attacks in the Soviet media and books must end. There was no promise that the stench of official anti-Semitism in the electronic and printed mediums would cease.”


Asked who speaks for Soviet Jews, Lynn Singer, a past president of the UCSJ and executive director of the Long Island Committee for Soviet Jewry, a member organization of the UCSJ, said emphatically that “Soviet Jews should speak for themselves. But in light of the fact that they are not able to talk in one voice to the West directly, the Union of Councils is probably more tuned in to the needs of Soviet Jews than anyone else. But we have not been appointed or anointed, nor has anyone else. That job belongs to the Mashiach, and since the world has done an excellent job of dividing Jews, then the spokesman for Jews has not yet arrived.”

“I think that the presumptuousness of the self-appointed would-be Jewish leaders is frightening,” said Singer, adding that “the 40-member councils of the UCSJ were not consulted by the NCSJ” although the UCSJ had asked to talk to them many times.

Schneier, asked who speaks for Soviet Jews, responded: “I think that the issue of Soviet Jews is of such great concern for every Jewish leader and the Jewish community all over the world that you certainly have many people committed to the cause. We have leaders who have a great sense of commitment to raise the plight of Soviet Jewry.”

Schneier also said that he believes that in the case of Soviet Jews whose families are in the U.S. and who wish to be united with them here, that arrangements could be made by the families in the U.S. applying with the U.S. government for refugee status for them. Most particularly, in the case of cancer patients whose families are in the U.S., he spoke of “preferential visas” for sick people issued by the U.S. “Sick people would be able to apply for entry to the U.S. based on compassion,” Schneier believes.

The routing through Rumania to Israel, said Schneier, “was just a general principle that was approved. All the questions raised are legitimate questions that have to be addressed. But first, there has to be a resolution of all the Jewish community.” Schneier cautioned on the need for all Jews and Soviet Jewry activists to close ranks and move together in a united front. He told JTA that he refused to cast any aspersion on any Jewish leader or to engage in divisiveness. “I would urge that Jews join ranks and let’s move forward,” he said. “It is a historic time, and there are many opportunities. Let’s face it,” he said, “changes are taking place in the Soviet Union. This is no time to have friction within. We have to sit down together and talk this over.”

Prof. Martin Gilbert of Oxford University, the biographer of Winston Churchill and an author of many books on Soviet Jews, as well as advisory board member of the UCSJ and strong activist for Soviet Jews in England, told the JTA in an exclusive telephone interview from London that “At this time of change and controversy, one must never lose sight of the true dimensions of the Soviet Jewry problem, not only the 12,000 known refuseniks, but the 382,000 Jews who have already indicated their desire to leave, and whose number grows every day.

“No deal or arrangement with the Soviet authorities is worthy of the Jewish people in the free world, which does not establish without conditions the right of any Jew to leave Russia who might wish to do so, now or in the future. Even those refused on so-called ‘secrecy grounds’ must be allowed without exception to leave within a five or at most ten-year period after the ending of their official work. The cry ‘Let my people go’ must mean ‘all my people,’ or it means nothing.”

Recommended from JTA