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Behind the Headlines: Soviet Jewry Movement Debates Whether It is Time for New Approach

April 8, 1988
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Soviet Jewry groups for the most part have lined up behind a decision made this week by the Coalition to Free Soviet Jews to postpone the traditional Solidarity Sunday rally in New York, in favor of alternative events. They stress that changes in the situation of Soviet Jews warrant a new approach and a new process of education.

But at least one group, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, has questioned the coalitions’s authority to postpone or cancel Solidarity Sunday, saying it “had taken the decision without consultation with its constituent organizations.”

The coalition emphasized Wednesday that its decision to not hold the massive demonstration on its prearranged May 1 date is not a cancellation, but rather an indefinite postponement of the event to a more appropriate time.

“Somewhere down the road there will be another demonstration,” said Zeesy Schnur, the group’s executive director. “The time will come again when we will have to make another statement” like the one made Dec. 6 in Washington, when more than 200,000 demonstrated near the White House on the eve of President Reagan’s third summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

“You don’t hold a demonstration because you have nothing else to do. It should be part of an overall campaign,” she said. “The demonstration on its own has not brought about the emigration of Soviet Jews. It’s a cumulative effect.”

The coalition, as well as the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, are planning a wider stratagem to lead up to the fourth summit meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev, which is scheduled to take place in Moscow from May 29 to June 2.

Jerry Goodman, executive director of the NCSJ, said, “Today’s response must reflect the fact that there are no more prisoners of Zion; that aliyah, while far below what is necessary, is also well above what it was two years ago; that many of the hard-core cases have been resolved favorably.

“But the fact that there are thousand of others, including many who are not high-profile cases, who are still waiting,” he said, “shows the necessity… for ties to the new people who are beginning to develop in the Soviet Union within the void of those who have gone on aliyah.”


The coalition is calling its wider strategy a “global campaign,” while the National Conference has begun the process for an “International Campaign for the Moscow Summit,” to be orchestrated with constituent national member agencies and local affiliates.

However, there are different reactions within the National Conference to what is perceived to be the coalition’s usurping of a turf that belongs to the NCSJ.

A spokesman for the NCSJ, Jerry Strober, said Tuesday that his group would support the coalition’s local efforts, but that it alone was responsible for planning Soviet Jewry activities outside the New York area.

On Wednesday, Morris Abram, NCSJ chairman, sounded upset when he said, “What do they mean by a global strategy? The coalition is not responsible for strategy. This is not an area in which they are concerned.”

Goodman, however, did not want to encourage friction between the two groups, who have traditionally maintained a cooperative relationship.

Schnur also said she did not want to dwell on intergroup disagreements. She explained that the coalition “works with Greater New York, pieces of New Jersey and Washington, D.C., and because New York is a center of the business community, the Jewish community and the media, we obviously have a large mandate.”

“The Soviet Jewry issue deals with many aspects,” she said. “We try to advise and coordinate, but we don’t presume to control” other people or groups.


Rabbi Avi Weiss, national chairman of the Student Struggle, called the coalition’s move to cancel the Solidarity Sunday march “an absolute outrage… a tragedy (and) an abdication of their responsibility to the Jewish community because of the funding that they receive from Federation.”

Glenn Richter, SSSJ national coordinator, said, “Creative, smaller actions before the summit are welcomed, but are no substitute for a mass rally which President Reagan can point to as a mandate for a strong bargaining position on human rights.”

The Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry, of which the SSSJ is a member, however, stood foursquare behind the coalition and the National Conference.

Micah Naftalin, UCSJ national director, said, “We support the decision, because Soviet Jewry has not benefited significantly from the first three summits, and it is incumbent upon the Soviet Jewry movement and all Americans to urge the administration to try to secure substantial increases in exit visas during the fourth and last summit.”


The NCSJ international campaign will be highlighted by a series of events in Helsinki from May 25 to 29, just preceding the summit. The National Conference is including the European Jewish community as well its American counterpart in these plans.

President Reagan is expected to be in the Finnish capital for about two days prior to his meeting with Gorbachev, and may make a statement on human rights.

Richard Maass, NCSJ’s first chairman and recently named by Abram to chair the group’s Moscow Summit Committee, said, “We want to make certain that the president carries the strong and clear impression of concern and commitment that brought over 200,000 people to our nation’s capital last December prior to the opening of the Washington summit.”

A major component of the international campaign will be Summit Action Day for Soviet Jewry, scheduled May 3 in Washington. Jewish leaders representing national agencies, local federations and community relations councils will attend briefings at the State Department and visit with members of Congress, officials of nongovernmental organizations and envoys of the nations that signed the Helsinki human rights accords.

Also planned during the summit are a community letter-writing campaign to the president and an international advertising campaign.

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