After Sister Cities Conference. Debate Continues on Tactics for Talking Human Rights with Soviets
Menu JTA Search

After Sister Cities Conference. Debate Continues on Tactics for Talking Human Rights with Soviets

Download PDF for this date

Emotions remain strained and the debate continues three weeks after about 300 people rallied in support of Soviet Jewry at a U.S.-Soviet Sister Cities conference here.

At issue was whether human rights should have been placed on the agenda of a forum about Soviet business and trade relations that attracted the mayors of five Soviet cities among its 100 participants.

The Soviets flatly said, “no,” maintaining there is “no Jewish problem in the Soviet Union.”

Conference chair Rosanne Royer, wife of Seattle Mayor Charles Royer, admitted that human rights for Jews and others is a problem in the Soviet Union, but maintained it was a mistake to forcefully confront the Soviet on the issue at the conference.

She argued the best way to promote human rights in the Soviet Union is low key, behind-the-scenes efforts.

“Nonsense,” retorted Judy Balint, president of Seattle Action for Soviet Jewry. “The Soviets respond to one thing only — public pressure. Without it, 350,000 Jews would never have gotten out of the Soviet Union over the past 20 years. What’s more, without further pressure, the more than 400,000 Soviet Jews who have expressed a desire to leave the Soviet Union are going to remain trapped.”


The May 21 rally drew more than 300 participants to the site of the three-day conference at the downtown Sheraton Hotel, including members of the Seattle Peace and Freedom Coalition, a group representing Poles, Latvians, Afghans, Estonians, Cambodians, Lithuanians and other oppressed groups.

The Seattle news media gave as much coverage to the human rights concerns of the demonstrators and their supporters as to the conference itself. That angered conference chair Royer.

“I’ve been to the Soviet Union and I support the human rights issue,” she said. “But when non-Jews like me come along to help, it’s not a good idea to slap them in the face. It discourages other non-Jews from working on the cause.

“Specifically, I don’t appreciate being labeled as the one who kept human rights off the agenda. I didn’t have the authority. The agenda was in the hands of the sponsoring Sister Cities International organization.” Nevertheless, Royer acknowledged that she agreed with the agenda decision on grounds that human rights “is a political issue.”

“Frankly, I had no problems with the demonstration itself,” she said. “But I don’t think the best way to get results from the Soviets is to make conditions intended to force the issue onto the agenda. Better to support the Sister Cities program, get in the door, start exchanges between our cities and then, through low-key channels, attempt to make inroads on human rights.

Balint disagreed. “We’ve been trying for 13 years to make low-key progress on human rights with our sister city (of Tashkent) and you want to know what we’ve achieved? Absolutely nothing,” she said. “Out of the goodness of them hearts, the Soviets are never going to give us a thing.”

“Human rights may not have made it onto the agenda at this conference,” she continued, “but you can bet the Soviets got the message.”

Balint scoffed at the notion that human rights should not have been discussed. “If you’re going to deal with the Soviets, you had better come to the realization that everything the Soviets do, including their participation in this conference, is political,” she said.

“You’re fooling yourself if you think the Soviets are interested in people-to-people exchanges and grassroots understanding. They came here with one idea in mind — to forward their political objectives.”


Rabbi Anson Laytner, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle’s Community Relations Council, described the rally as a “bitter-sweet event … In the end, it’s not enough to have a well-attended rally and lots of news coverage. What we want is some movement by the Soviets on the issue of human rights.”

In an attempt to lure the Soviet into a discussion on the issue during the conference, Rep. John Miller (R. Wash.) asserted that improved trade relations between the United States and the Soviet Union depend on how much the Soviets improve their record on religious liberty and the right to emigrate.

The Soviets, however, responded with indignation. “Such an approach is tantamount to interfering into the affairs of the Soviet Union,” said Soviet delegate Vladimir Chibirev. “And that is unacceptable to us.”

Valentine Simonenko, mayor of Odessa, described rally participants as “annoying as a mosquito.”

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund