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Jews in the Former Soviet Union: Fighting For Free Immigration

by Mitchell Bard

The American commitment to justice is reflected in the campaign to insure freedom of emigration. The plight of Jews in the Soviet Union and other countries where they were persecuted was not just a "Jewish," "American," or "Western" issue. Freedom of emigration is a matter of fundamental human rights.

At least 10 American Presidents, going as far back as Ulysses S. Grant, have intervened on behalf of Russian Jewry. In 1869, Grant interceded with Czarist authorities to prevent the expulsion of 20,000 Jews from Bessarabia in southern Russia. A decade later, in 1879, and then again in 1883, the House adopted resolutions criticizing Russian discrimination against Jews and called upon the Administration to use its influence to halt the oppression. In 1892, the House refused to appropriate funds to transport food to Russia because the persecution of Russian Jewry "shocked the moral sensibilities of the Christian world."

Technically, the fight in 1911 was over the issue of passport discrimination against American Jews trying to visit Russia, but it was also an effort to ameliorate the plight of Russian Jews. In March, President William Howard Taft reduced tariff rates to Russia over the objections of the U.S. Tariff Board. Congress threatened to abrogate the U.S.-Russian commercial treaty of 1832, but Secretary of State Philander Knox argued that "quiet and persistent endeavor" would be a more effective means of altering the policy of the Czarist regime. Congress ultimately abrogated the treaty.

The Russian Revolution and rise of Stalin caused a deterioration in the position of Soviet Jews. The persecution of Jews and Communist efforts to wipe out traces of Judaism led to increasing demands to allow Jews to emigrate. In 1972, Congress appropriated funds to help resettle Soviet Jews in Israel. When pressed to explain why the United States should pay for such resettlement, Sen. Edmund Muskie gave three reasons:

1) We have never forgotten that we were founded and populated by the refugees of an earlier world. Our commitment to that cause is inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

2) There is the long history of our concern with persecution on the account of religion and, in the last half century, particularly with the persecution of Jews. Beginning in the early 1900s, our national leaders have fought for the freedom and dignity of the world's Jewish community. We played a major role in the creation of Israel; we have been its firm defender ever since.

3) Beyond humanitarian concerns, there is our clear self-interest in the health and well-being of Israel. War is not the only danger to a healthy Israel. Economic disaster can accomplish what war could not, if we let it. A country the size of Israel, with its heavy defense burdens, cannot afford the several hundred million dollars that will be required for the anticipated influx of Soviet Jews over and above Israel's normal budget for immigrants.

The same year, Congress passed a resolution calling on the Soviet Union to permit the free expression of ideas, the exercise of religion, and the right of emigration.

But the most significant act taken by Congress was provoked by the Soviets' decision to impose a "diploma tax" on all emigrants who had received a higher education. The fees were so high that people holding advanced degrees could not afford to pay. In response, a campaign began to tie freedom of emigration to the Nixon Administration's efforts to provide the Soviet Union Most-Favored-Nation trade status. That effort culminated in the adoption of the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Reform Act signed by President Ford in 1975.

Subsequently, members of Congress, as well as Presidents Carter, Reagan, and Bush, pressed the Soviet Union to fulfill its obligations to allow its citizens freedom to emigrate.

The United States has also been involved in working to secure the freedom of other imperilled Jewish communities, notably those in Syria, Yemen and Ethiopia. In 1985, the United States and Israel cooperated in "Operation Joshua," the heroic airlift that followed "Operation Moses" and resulted in the rescue of 10,000 Ethiopian Jews.

Mikhail Gorbachev's decision to allow Jews to leave, coupled with the later collapse of the Soviet Union, shifted America's emphasis from opening the doors of the Soviet Union to finding ways to help Israel absorb newcomers. Since 1989, more than 800,000 Jews who have immigrated to Israel (roughly 80% from the former Soviet Union). To help Israel with the challenge of integrating this tremendous influx, the United States has provided Israel with nearly $11 billion in loan guarantees and refugee resettlement funds.

Mitchell Bard is the Executive Director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.