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Amendment on Jewish Emigration is Slowed on Road to Historic Dustbin

June 4, 2002
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The recent summit between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin was missing at least one thing: a ceremony to mark the end of the legislation tying trade privileges to Russian Jews’ right to emigrate freely.

Bush had wanted to have Congress lift the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment in time for the meeting, but trade issues have delayed the plan to permanently repeal the restrictions and grant Russia favored-nation trading status.

U.S. Jewish groups are hopeful the legislation will pass by the end of the year.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has been given a waiver each year from Jackson-Vanik’s emigration requirements. But the symbolism of having Jackson-Vanik still on the books led the administration to push for its repeal as a reflection of improved U.S.-Russian relations.

Congressional lawmakers, however, are focusing on trade problems, primarily in the poultry industry.

Russia banned imports of U.S. chicken and turkey in March because of health concerns. Despite a lifting of the ban, exports have been slow to resume, causing difficulties in the U.S. business community.

Jewish groups in the United States and Russia generally are supportive of Russia’s “graduation” from Jackson- Vanik, but want assurances that Russia will work to ensure human rights freedoms and fight against anti-Semitism.

Current legislation in Congress includes some human rights language, but Jewish groups want U.S. policy objectives to be tougher regarding religious freedom in Russia.

Jackson-Vanik is “suspended for now,” but is not stalled permanently, according to Harold Luks, the chairman of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia.

The legislation just needs a new vehicle to get it through Congress, and Jewish groups will continue to push for stronger human rights language, he said.

Jackson-Vanik was discussed at a U.S. House of Representatives hearing in April, but the U.S. Senate has not yet scheduled a hearing.

It is unclear whether several other countries in the former Soviet Union will also be graduated out of the Jackson- Vanik requirements.

Some lawmakers want a bill to address the continuation of free Jewish emigration, enforcement of hate crimes legislation and restitution of Jewish communal property seized by the Soviets in the 1920s and 1930s.

Other members of Congress do not agree that Putin should be rewarded for the steps he has made so far, and say it is too early to change Jackson-Vanik.

Micah Naftalin, national director of the UCSJ: Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, admits that Putin talks about anti-Semitism and human rights. But, he said, there needs to be “concrete action behind the excellent rhetoric.”

Jackson-Vanik, however, does not have any real leverage, Naftalin maintains, and dealing with the Russians on human rights should be on a more constructive level.

“Incentives are as important” as punishments, he said.

Avraham Berkowitz, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Commonwealth of Independent States, said last week that lifting Jackson-Vanik is good for Russian Jews: It would prevent other Russians from saying that Jews are preventing positive trade relations with the United States.

Russian religious leaders have been supportive as well, wanting to thank the Russian government for its help with Jewish renewal in a number of communities.

Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Russian Jewish Congress, wants to convene a conference of Russian Jewish leaders and groups next month to discuss Jackson-Vanik and form a unified stance on the issue.

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