In his op-ed on Sunday, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger apologized for “undoubtedly offensive” comments he made 37 years ago about the fate of Soviet Jews, remarks that recently came to light with the release of tapes by the Nixon presidential library. But in trying to explain the historical context of his words, Kissinger presented a dismissive view of the Soviet Jewry movement as an ineffective irritant. This distorts the important role it played in the Cold War. The movement was a 25-year struggle to force the Soviet Union to allow the free emigration of Jews who were being discriminated against and robbed of their cultural and religious rights. It ultimately made the issue an inextricable part of the U.S.-Soviet relationship and contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union.
At the peak of its success, this movement was also a political force that won passage of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which forced the Soviets to remove all blocks to emigration if they wanted to receive most-favored-nation trading status with the United States. Although the Soviets ultimately rejected these conditions and the accompanying trade deal once they were voted into law at the end of 1974, the amendment shoved this human rights issue into the center of the Cold War. The movement’s loud protests, hard lobbying and persistent efforts to publicize its cause eventually made saving Soviet Jewry an objective of U.S. foreign policy. By 1987 one of Kissinger’s successors as secretary of state, George Shultz,â?? would attend a Passover seder in Moscow with Jewish activists in between meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev,â?? then general secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union.
Kissinger wrote that through quiet diplomacy he managed to get out “more than 100,000” Jews during Richard Nixon’s first term and that efforts such as the Jackson-Vanik Amendment actually hindered emigration, which never again reached such levels until after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It was indeed in the early 1970s that the Soviets began to let out a significant number of Jews. But contrary to Kissinger’s memory, and according to reliable emigration figures collected by the Israeli government, the total for Nixon’s first term (1969-72) was no more than 45,000. And there is no evidence to indicate that this was Kissinger’s or Nixon’s doing. The decision to begin allowing some Jews to leave came in response to the Leningrad trials of December 1970.The Soviets had sentenced two Jews to death for participating in a plot to hijack a plane and fly it out of the country. Worldwide protests on behalf of the men, who had acted out of desperation after being refused exit visas, forced the Soviet Union to commute their sentences and begin rethinking its hard-line emigration policy.
More than any backroom diplomatic dealings, it was the pressure of a growing movement that provoked the Soviet shift on emigration. A case in point was the 1973 decision by Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev to remove that “diploma tax,” which demanded that would-be emigrants reimburse the state prohibitive sums for their educations. In a politburo meeting that March, Brezhnev pointedly told his colleagues, “At this particular time, when the Zionists have incited a campaign around the Jackson Amendment and around the bill granting us [most-favored-nation] status, we need to let them out.”
After the amendment passed as part of a 1974 trade law and economic relations with the United States were linked to Jewish emigration, the Soviets had to face this issue every time they wanted rapprochement with the West. In 1979 alone, an unprecedented 51,000 Soviet Jews were allowed to leave – a fact Kissinger did not mention. That year, the Soviets, suffering from a bad harvest, were hoping to secure a grain deal. They also wanted Congress to ratify a round of arms-limitation talks. Jackson-Vanik had taught them that if they wanted something from the United States, the best way to get it was to let Jews out.
When Gorbachev came to power in the mid-1980s and tried to save the Soviet Union from economic ruin, he understood that he would also need to reform his society, including opening the gates. “We have to resolve the Jewish question, the most burning among human rights problems,” Anatoly Chernyaev, Gorbachev’s closest foreign affairs adviser, wrote in his diary in 1986. After two decades of pressure, the price the Soviets would have to pay was clear. With Gorbachev eager for U.S. economic assistance, the exodus began. He let out 71,196 in 1989, 181,802 in 1990 and 178,566 in 1991 – all before the Soviet Union’s demise.
Kissinger discounted the idea that this movement played any role in unraveling the Soviet Union. But it did just that by making human rights a non-negotiable part of any reform. This demand – to allow citizens to freely exit their country – threatened the existence of the communist empire almost as much as the meltdown of its economic model. It armed Soviet citizens with the greatest weapon against their closed society: the opportunity to vote with their feet and leave.
Gal Beckerman, a reporter at the Forward and the author of the forthcoming book When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry.