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U.S. Can Aid Soviet Jews by Lifting a Dubious Law

March 20, 1988|George Perkovich | George Perkovich, a fellow of the World Policy Institute, specializes in Soviet-U.S. relations

ROYAL OAK, MD. — The ghost of the late Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson (D-Wash.) will accompany high-level American businessmen and government officials going to Moscow for trade meetings with the Soviets in early April. Jackson was the principal author of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which denies most-favored-nation status and government credits to the Soviets so long as the Soviets limit Jewish emigration. It is hard to talk trade with the Soviets without talking about the amendment.

Jackson-Vanik, and the related Stevenson amendment restricting government credit, are particularly hot topics now because the Soviets in 1987 allowed 8,155 Jews to emigrate, an eightfold increase over 1986. This leads some legislators, businessmen and other observers to recommend, mostly privately, that Jackson-Vanik should be waived (which the legislation allows upon request of the President and approval by Congress) or repealed. These people say it did not work in the first place and the United States should switch tactics and respond favorably to improved Soviet performance as a way to encourage continued progress.

Statistics and recent Soviet history argue for waiver or repeal. The legislation clearly failed to raise emigration rates, and most probably was a cause of the low rates from 1975-77 and 1980-86. Indeed, Arthur Hertzberg, one of the Jewish leaders negotiating with the Nixon Administration over the amendment, said, "At the turning point for Soviet Jewry, when Soviet Jewry could have been saved, the Jewish Establishment betrayed it. It was disastrously incompetent and morally unforgivable." (The 1978-79 and 1987 rises in emigration are explained primarily by the Soviets' overriding desire for arms-control agreements--SALT II and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty).

Politically, however, waiving Jackson-Vanik is very difficult. Major American Jewish organizations, the AFL-CIO and hard-line opponents of any trade and cooperation with the Soviets vehemently resist. The Jewish organizations, to whom Congress and the Administration defer on this issue, insist that much higher emigration rates are required before considering a waiver. Though some Jewish leaders urge greater flexibility, to date the hard line has held publicly.

Organized American Jewry's rigidity is caused in part by a reluctance to reappraise its allegiance to Jackson's unrelenting confrontational strategy and method of dealing with the Soviet Union. Examination of Jackson's approach, paired with a review of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union since 1971, suggests that Soviet Jews would be better served by a more flexible and businesslike strategy than the one followed since early in the debate over the Jackson-Vanik amendment. The amendment was written by Richard N. Perle, then a Jackson staff member, and by Morris Amitay, a member of Sen. Abraham A. Ribicoff's staff. In 1974 Amitay went on to direct the powerful pro-Israel lobby, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Perle, who achieved notoriety as the Reagan Administration's paramount hard-liner, was determined in 1972 to undermine the detente being worked out by Richard M. Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger. Nixon had just signed SALT I, and there seemed little opportunity to defeat it. A proposed U.S.-Soviet trade pact, however, did seem vulnerable. Perle settled on the tactic of stifling trade by linking it to emigration only after he abandoned an earlier draft that would have obstructed the trade deal without reference to emigration or human rights.

To Perle and Jackson, the linkage strategy seemed like a no-lose proposition: If the Soviets freed Jews, that was a big enough human rights and pro-Israel gain to offset disappointment over greater East-West trade. If the Soviets didn't free Jews, the original goal of blocking trade would be satisfied, delighting the AFL-CIO and the other antagonists of detente Jackson was wooing for his future presidential bid.

While Perle truly cared for Soviet Jewry, his and Jackson's contempt for detente was the original motivation behind the trade restrictions. This helps explain why at critical times they refused to compromise with the Nixon Administration and the Soviets, even when some Jewish leaders thought Jackson was pushing too hard.

American Jewish organizations provided the muscle Jackson needed to defeat the Nixon Administration and the business lobbyists who opposed the amendment. The Jewish organizations--most important, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and the National Conference on Soviet Jewry--joined with Jackson because they deeply wanted freer emigration. Their confidence grew after the mere threat of the amendment prompted the Soviets to lift the education tax imposed on emigres in 1972.

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