WASHINGTON, Feb. 19 (JTA) — On the eve of a possible U.S. military strike against Iraq, Jewish officials were in Moscow this week pressing Russian leaders to end their support for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and Iran. The three-day Russia trip, which ended late Wednesday, came as United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan traveled to Iraq for a last-ditch attempt at a diplomatic solution to the crisis stemming from Iraq’s refusal to cooperate with U.N. weapons’ inspectors. While the Jewish officials did not overtly press Russia to end its opposition to U.S. military strikes, the possibility of war in the Persian Gulf was high on the agenda of the group’s meetings, participants said. The National Conference on Soviet Jewry and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations secretly planned the whirlwind trip during the last two weeks. Its original purpose was to focus on concerns over Russia’s ties with Iran and domestic Russian Jewish issues. But with diplomacy toward Iraq nearing its end, the crisis with Saddam Hussein catapulted toward the top of the list. Though most of the organized Jewish world has not publicly stated its position on U.S. strikes against Iraq, it is evident that support for action runs deep in a community that witnessed in horror as Scuds fell on Tel Aviv during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. “Clearly, there was no way that we were going to visit the leadership of Russia without raising the issue of Iraq,” said one participant, Kenneth Jacobson, assistant national director of the Anti-Defamation League. The trip, which included nearly two hours with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, came as the United States planned to announce whether it will sanction Russian and French firms for doing business with Iran. The meetings also came as Russia confirmed reports that private Russian companies had negotiated with Iraq in 1995 to sell machines that can brew agents to make biological weapons. The Jewish delegation told the Russians that “we are supportive of President Clinton’s view to have a military option in the near future,” said Jacobson, whose group was one of the first to express its support to the Clinton administration for military action. When Russian officials said the diplomatic option has not been exhausted, Jacobson said, the group countered that “without a serious military option there is no chance of a diplomatic result.” Against this backdrop, nine Jewish officials tried to convince Russia of the dangers of exporting missile technology to Iraq and Iran. Chernomyrdin countered that Russia has issued a directive preventing companies from exporting goods that have a dual use in weapons manufacturing unless they first receive a government license, participants said. In fact, the Russians released to the officials the directive that U.S. officials had not yet seen. The group shared the document with U.S. officials, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents. While Russian officials offered reassuring comments regarding their efforts to stop companies from contracting with Iranian firms, “the test will always be in the performance,” Hoenlein said. Vice President Al Gore is expected to raise the issue during a scheduled meeting with Chernomyrdin in early March. “There was no question about our position that we’re concerned about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and what those weapons might do to our brethren in Israel,” said Dan Mariaschin, director of the B’nai B’rith Center for Public Policy. In addition to Chernomyrdin, the delegation also met with Alexander Livshitz, President Boris Yeltsin’s deputy chief of staff. Although the international situation dominated some meetings, the group also focused on the domestic situation for Russian Jews. According to Mark Levin, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, the group raised concerns about Russia’s new religion law that prevents some religions from establishing a presence. Though Judaism is listed as one of four official religions, the controversial law – – which was enacted in September — has been used in at least one instance to deny registration to a Jewish congregation 200 miles outside of Moscow. Also high on the group’s agenda was concern over Russian anti-Semitism and the restitution of Jewish communal property, including more than 500 Torah scrolls currently housed in museums and libraries. In addition to the political meetings, the group also visited a Jewish day school and met with representatives of the Russian Jewish community.
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.