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When Legislation Matches Our Best Impulses

This Monday marks the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. This landmark legislation, which remains a stirring case study in the importance of human rights and moral idealism as an instrument of foreign policy, provided the impetus for the mass emigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union and helped propel the winds of change that ultimately toppled Communism.

My own personal and visceral connection with Jackson-Vanik came about rather by accident. In August 1985, I embarked together with three friends and colleagues on a visit to the former Soviet Union. The purpose of our visit was to bring support to Jewish refuseniks, those individuals and families who had applied for and been denied permission to emigrate.

Among the refuseniks we met was the Dolganov family of Leningrad. We spent a lovely Shabbat afternoon with them, hearing their story, partaking of their hospitality, singing songs together and seeking to convey to them our commitment to their well being without giving false hopes of our ability to immediately effect a change in their rather bleak situation.

Approximately a year later, I received a registered letter from Victor Dolganov, the father of the family. It was a letter forged by desperation, framed by an appreciation of kinship and common bond, and cast in the universal language of a longing for a better tomorrow. In his letter, Victor explained that his family had recently received the latest in a string of refusals of their request to emigrate from the Soviet Union. His concern at the moment was focused primarily on his daughter Irina, who had just completed her university studies.

In an effort to facilitate her ability to emigrate from the Soviet Union, which was stifling her yearnings and crushing her dreams like a tight cage, Victor requested that I marry Irina. In his memorable words: “I think that it is the simple chance that your ancestors had left this country but not mine. Here we try to help each other, and I hope that you will understand me right.”

After a period of intense struggle and consultation with those whose opinion I respected, I decided that I could not accede to Victor’s request. Not the least of my concerns was that this action requested of me was in violation of American law. I sought to assuage my guilt and ambivalence by telling myself that a window of opportunity would present itself for effective advocacy on behalf of this family, with whom I had forged such an intense connection. I wasn’t sure if this logic represented the forces of pragmatism and enlightened self-interest prevailing over the impulse to do good in my thought process, but at the time it was the best I could come up with.

Rather soon after this, the saga of my involvement with the Dolganov family came to a surprising and happy conclusion. In September 1987, then-New York governor Mario Cuomo was preparing to embark on a trip to the Soviet Union, during which he would be meet with high-level Soviet officials. As was the custom at the time whenever an American politician visited the Soviet Union, Cuomo was to hand to Soviet officials he met a list of refuseniks and dissidents on whose behalf he was specifically inquiring. Before the governor flew to Moscow, I contacted the Cuomo administration official who was overseeing all of the logistical details of the governor’s trip and was able to arrange for the inclusion of the Dolganov family on the official roster of refuseniks to be inquired about.

When I checked into the status of the Dolganov family several months later, I was informed that they had immigrated to Israel. Their request to leave the Soviet Union had been granted. Their dreams of finding freedom had been fulfilled through a confluence of circumstances and events that can be traced directly to the profound commitment to human rights codified in the provisions of Jackson-Vanik.

On the 30th anniversary of this historic legislation, it is well worth remembering that the ability of the United States to be a force for good in the world is not expressed or understood primarily through abstract doctrines of foreign policy. It is best conveyed through the stories and struggles of families such as the Dolganovs, whose prayers for freedom were answered because our best impulses as a country were matched through deed in the legislation we passed and the policies we pursued.

Simeon Kolko is rabbi of Beth Israel Temple Center in Warren, Ohio.


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