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“terror Claim” is Seen As Tactic to Cloud Appeal for Soviet Jews

November 17, 1971
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The two days of hearings about Soviet Jews held by the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Europe were remarkable, among other things, by the disinterest in them by the general press and the ease with which the State Department was able again both to show sympathy for the oppressed and still display a friendly face towards the oppressing Kremlin.

Although the subcommittee was gathering testimony preparatory to writing a resolution for the consideration of the Congress on an issue charged with high moral and political content that looms large both at home and abroad, the hearings attracted few newsmen and no television. Consequently, much information of major importance to Jewish readership was passed over. Ultimately, the Congressional report will be available with all the testimony. But meanwhile, in the marketplace of conceptions developed by the daily news media, the appeal for Soviet Jewry has been put under a cloud, artificial as that cloud may be.

In these circumstances, how the State Department conducted itself is of key importance. Its chief witness was Richard T. Davies, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, a clear signal of the Department’s low rating of the proceedings. To diplomats and the media, a Foreign Office determines the importance of an event by the rank of its participants. By these means, the Department indicated that it sought to minimize both the hearings and what it had to say–a fact hardly lost on the Soviet Embassy. Implicit in all this was its deep concern for the Kremlin’s intense sensitivity on this issue and President Nixon’s trip to Moscow next May combined with an election year.


The Department’s 21-page presentation was a masterpiece of ambiguity. It sought to placate American supporters of Soviet Jewry who have been making increasingly urgent appeals for the Soviet Union to heed its international obligations. On the other hand, it seemed to be informing the Kremlin that this was a matter which, in a democracy, cannot be suppressed but that it would try to keep it to a low pitch.

Thus, the Department told the Congress that it sympathized with “Jews and others in the Soviet Union who have sought through legal means to exercise these rights which are proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and, having established what the administration has done in this direction, added that it would be “appropriate” for the Congress to adopt a resolution “on the subject.”

This in itself represented an enormous advance by the Nixon administration to meet the appeals made to it and despite the obvious risk it ran in offending the Kremlin. At a time when much of the media still resorts to words like “charges” and “allegations” of “mistreatment” of Jews, this official expression dissolved such suspicions and sealed the complaints with governmental approval.

But then the statement went on to say that “claims that Soviet Jews as a community are living in a state of terror seems to be overdrawn.” Since this contention followed the sentence saying “there can be no comparison” with the Nazi holocaust or Stalin’s blood purge, the implication was plain. But just who set forth the “claims” was not identified. Professor Hans Morgenthau spoke for all responsible men when he told the subcommittee that no one has “dared” to make the comparison. The Department’s own statement named organizations and men opposed to the Jewish Defense League but neither they nor anyone else was linked in any way to the “claims.”


To many it seemed the “claims” appeared to be a propaganda tactic for diplomatic purposes to obscure and divert the real issues and please the Kremlin. United Press International, in fact, in its seven-paragraph report to the media in the United States ignored it. Its emphasis was on the Department’s position towards the proposed resolution. The Associated Press did not report the proceedings at all. But The New York Times front-paged a two-column head, “U.S. Asserts Soviet Jews Are Not Living In Terror,” and stressed that the “Department sought to sought to counter the impression, widespread among many in Congress and Jewish groups, that the three million Soviet Jews were undergoing unusual ordeals.”

If this was indeed the Department’s intention, then The Times went far beyond the Department’s own discussion to put the idea across. White it emphasized “terror” in its headline and front page, The Times did not associate that “terror” with the Nazis and Stalin until deep in its story on an inside page. The Department’s support of a Congressional resolution calling on the Russians to improve conditions and allow them to emigrate was dismissed with six lines in the nineteenth paragraph. There were other instances of curious editorial handling of the episode.

Why did The Times do this? One impression among observers was that The Times saw in that part of the Department’s statement an affirmation of what The Times itself had reported from Moscow last January. Another impression was that the newspaper, read avidly in Washington’s Congressional and governmental circles, sought to influence Congress against any resolution on the assumption that it would be an obstacle toward an improvement of relations between Washington and Moscow.

The next day, the Committee’s chamber rang with denunciations from witnesses and Congressmen of what they read in The Times and of The Times itself. But much damage had been done. The Times stressed “several witnesses” disputed the Department’s “analysis” under a one-column headline on Page 12. It did not report any criticism that also had been leveled at itself.


Six days after the Department’s presentation, the Washington Post emphasized in an incomprehensibly belated news report that the Department’s endorsement of a Congressional resolution on the Soviet Jews was “unprecedented.” The Post also reported that Pravda and Izvestia focused on that part of the statement “which they claimed refuted the fantasies of the Zionists.” Thus, as had been foreseen by some at the hearings, that section of the Department’s statement pleased the Kremlin.

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