Glasnost and the Jews

The invitation I received to visit Moscow seemed itself an expression of glasnost. I first talked about visiting the USSR in Paris in December 1985 at a UNESCO conference on Maimonides.* There I met Vitaly Naumkin, the director of the section on the Arab states at the Oriental Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, who asked me whether I would come to Moscow to lecture and to meet people at the institute. When a formal invitation finally came this past June, a year and a half later, the terms were generous: I was invited to come as the guest of the Oriental Institute and to choose any topic I wanted for a lecture.

When I arrived in Moscow at the end of August, I made it clear that I would try to see as many Jewish refuseniks and human rights activists as I could. No one objected. My hosts at the Oriental Institute had invited me as an academic, but they knew that I am also a vice president of the World Jewish Congress and had spent many years as a member of the executive board of the World Zionist Organization. My hosts had arranged in advance for me to meet some political officials, and the list grew somewhat during the visit, for the Soviets were at least as eager to discuss their own “Jewish problem” as to discuss the politics of the Middle East.

The Soviets continue to chafe under different kinds of pressure from abroad. From the West they are told daily that they ought to let Jews emigrate if they wish, while their Arab allies object to even the slightest move toward Israel. At home, giving the Jews special consideration may dangerously encourage the hopes of other dissident minorities. Such questions have become particularly acute now with the imminent summit meeting between Secretary General Gorbachev and President Reagan. Gorbachev must know that in the US he will face demonstrations against Soviet restrictions on Jewish emigration and human rights generally.

Both Georgi Arbatov, the head of the America-Canada Institute, and Karyn Brutens, the deputy of Anatoly Dobrynin in the foreign department of the Central Committee of the Communist party, vehemently told me that nothing was being done, or would be done, in Moscow to meet Western pressure for concessions on the Jewish question. This is what officials can be expected to say. Virtually every other conversation I had in Moscow made it clear that the authorities were trying to find ways of softening the protests that Gorbachev will face in the US. For Western audiences they were going to play their best cards now; at the same time they wanted to make clear their long-term conception of the place of Jews and other minorities within Gorbachev’s scheme of things. So there was nothing haphazard in suddenly letting out, in September, some of the longstanding Jewish refuseniks, Yosif Begun and Victor Brailovsky and a number of others, while denouncing Zionism with greater fervor than before, and…

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