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Book Discussion -- Struggle for Soviet Jewry in American Politics: Israel versus the American Jewish Establishment

April 10, 2006 // 12:00am

Numerous scholars are engaged in attempting to assess the impact of American diaspora communities on U.S. foreign policy and the reasons for their involvement with certain issues and at certain moments. Prof. Fred Lazin's The Struggle for Soviet Jewry in American Politics, which was discussed at a program sponsored by the Division of U.S. Studies and the Kennan Institute, looks specifically at the attempt of the Israeli government to use American Jewish groups to pressure the U.S. government on behalf of Israel's interest in attracting Soviet Jews, and at the unintended consequences that resulted.

In 1952, eager to attract more Jews to Israel and arguing that Soviet Jews should be allowed to leave a country that denied them equal rights, the Israeli government established what came to be known as the "Liaison Bureau." Its mission was to encourage and assist Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel. It turned to American Jewish organizations for resettlement funds and to pressure the U.S. government to aid in persuading the USSR to permit the Jews to leave.

The American Jewish establishment was initially cooperative, and did bring its influence to bear on the U.S. government. One result was the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the 1974 Trade Act, which denied most favored nation trade status to countries such as the Soviet Union that restricted emigration rights. A split between the interests of the American Jewish groups and those of Israel developed in the 1970s, however. Because there were no direct flights from the Soviet Union to Israel, Soviet Jews traveled first to Vienna, where many of them declared that they preferred not to go to Israel but to immigrate to the United States instead. The American Jewish organizations declared that the immigrants should be able to choose, with the result that between 1973 and 1979, 100,000 Soviet Jews, dubbed "dropouts" by Israel, migrated to the United States.

Emigration was cut sharply by the Soviet Union in 1982 but permitted again in 1987. At that point, American Jewish leaders became concerned about the expense of resettling large numbers of Soviet Jews. They were also uneasy about the impact on the Jewish establishment's relationship with other immigrant aid groups, who questioned the use of the relatively few U.S. refugee slots for so many people from one country. The leadership therefore worked with the White House, Congress and the Israeli government to fashion a policy that limited annual Soviet Jewish immigration to this country and that resulted in some 750,000 Jews migrating to Israel between 1989 and 1994. While the American organizations had fought the Israeli government in the past for "possession" of the Soviet Jews, they now, as Alec Brook-Krasny and Benjamin Ginsberg told the audience, supported the immigrants' freedom of choice in theory but took the position that they would aid them financially only if they went to Israel.

The willingness of the organized American Jewish community to involve itself in the matter of Soviet Jews, Lazin said, contrasted sharply with the relative quiescence of that community while European Jews were murdered during World War II. Lazin noted the greater sense of security developed by American Jews by the second half of the twentieth century. Ginsberg commented that American Jewish organizations also saw the issue of Soviet Jewry as a useful tool for fund-raising and for community building. Once the Soviet Jews arrived in the United States, however, the organizations were faced both with high resettlement costs and with the realization that while they admired the refugees as symbols, they were less enchanted by the cultural norms the refugees brought with them. That, Ginsberg suggested, helps explain the willingness of the organizations to cooperate with both the U.S. and Israeli governments in directing subsequent Soviet Jewish immigrants to Israel.

Speaking from the perspective of a Soviet-Jewish immigrant, Alec Brook-Krasny recounted struggling with the question of whether it was more important to have a strong Israel or a strong diaspora. Although Lazin's book did not bring him closer to an answer, it did convince him that the government of Israel and the American Jewish establishment were more successful in working together to place the issue of the Soviet Jewry on the American political agenda than either would have been working alone.

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