Release Russian Jewry From Jackson-Vanik

By Tankred Golenpolsky

Published September 19, 2003, issue of September 19, 2003.
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Nearly three decades ago, Congress made American trade relations with the Soviet Union contingent upon respect for the human rights of Soviet Jews. Since then, more than 1 million Soviet Jews have emigrated, the Soviet Union has fallen, globalization has reshaped the world economy and relations between the Cold War powers have warmed into a strong, if at times contentious, alliance.

Yet when President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet next week at Camp David, the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Act of 1974 will not be on the agenda. The legislation was passed in order to force Moscow to let its Jews go; now its repeal is being blocked in order to force Moscow to let chickens in, among other reasons.

The Jackson-Vanik amendment was a moral piece of legislation, and during its time served a valuable purpose. But we now live in a different world. The Cold War is over, and it is time to the shelve the amendment.

Today Russia is making its first gradual steps toward becoming a democratic state. Of course, countries do not become democratic overnight, and Russia is no exception. Human rights are still a problem here. Freedom of speech is misunderstood, misused or abused. Among the masses, ethnic intolerance is still evident, and that includes anti-Jewish sentiment. And while there is a law against xenophobia, courts are slow or unwilling to try such cases.

To paraphrase the great black American writer James Baldwin, whom I had the pleasure of knowing personally, there is no Jewish problem in Russia — there is a Russian problem, and it is being dealt with.

We in Russia have reached an important stage in fighting antisemitism, and more and more non-Jews are raising their voices against it — from the corridors of power, from the halls of academia, from the stages of entertainment. These voices are speaking out loudly and clearly, and I am proud to say that my newspaper, the only independent Jewish publication in Russia, has played a part in publishing their statements.

Jews today are well represented in local government and in Russia’s parliament, the State Duma. Jews are leaders of influential political parties and hold an outsized presence in the business world. Could anyone have imagined 30 years ago that Russian dignitaries from the president to the mayor of Moscow would send their congratulations to Jews in Russia and abroad each Rosh Hashana?

And yet, the Jackson-Vanik amendment is still alive and kicking — kicking Russian-American relations that, if I am not mistaken, are no longer in a state of cold war; kicking big and small businesses that are no longer owned by the state. A less than charitable observer of the political machinations delaying the repeal of Jackson-Vanik might argue that Congress is actually attempting to suppress budding Russian capitalism — in which, by the way, Jews play a significant part.

What was a moral act during the height of the Cold War is today amoral, because it turns us Russian Jews, one way or another, into hostages of the amendment. Stop and think of the logic for a minute: Today Russian businessmen, many of them Jews, do not enjoy what was once called “most-favored nation” trade status because 30 years ago Jews could not emigrate from a communist state that no longer exists.

To be sure, one can hardly expect businesses to work against their own interests. American chicken exporters have problems with Japan and the European Union, just as they have problems with Russia. Yet they find ways of solving such trade problems through the appropriate channels — such as negotiations or other internationally acknowledged means — and not by reliance on an outdated restriction aimed at guaranteeing human rights.

Former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau once said that “an essential ingredient of politics is timing.” Congress should recognize that Jackson-Vanik’s time has passed. The amendment has served its cause and should be repealed. Today Jackson-Vanik is not only obsolete — it is simply unhealthy for Russian-American relations.

Tankred Golenpolsky is editor and publisher of the International Jewish Gazette, Russia’s only independent Jewish newspaper.

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