As he had pledged he would, Ronald Reagan made human rights in the Soviet Union a priority item on the agenda for his meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik. At their first session in Hofdi House, the President told the Soviet leader that repressive Soviet practices, including the refusal to allow Jews from the U.S.S.R. to emigrate, had a direct and negative effect on the Soviet-American relationship, fomenting mistrust and tension. Later that day, Mr. Reagan handed Mr. Gorbachev a packet of written materials on human rights; it included graphs and charts on the number of Jews allowed to leave the Soviet Union and the number who would like to leave. And in the experts’ all-night negotiations that followed, the question of Soviet Jews arose again. The message to Moscow, one American official recounted later, was that "if you want a productive relationship, you have to deal with certain inescapable realities." And one of those realities is the American demand to let Soviet Jews go.

But in the end, Reykjavik produced only a few changes in Soviet style. Soviet officials agreed to a continuing dialogue on "humanitarian issues and human rights"; for the most part, they listened politely when their press conferences were interrupted by people pressing for Jewish emigration. In the corridors Soviet journalists and academics passed the word that the Kremlin wanted to limit the public relations damage its human rights policies were causing. But at Reykjavik, as at Helsinki, Madrid, Geneva and other previous forums, there were no Soviet promises, no concessions. American officials afterward described themselves as frustrated by the fact that the key to releasing Soviet Jews remained elusive.

The irony is that since the beginning of the Reagan Administration, a potential lever for winning the release of Soviet Jews has lain useless. That lever is trade. It cannot be used because in 1974 Congress passed the Jackson-Vanik and Stevenson Amendments to two bills, with the avowed goal of pressing the Soviet Union to allow more emigration. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the Trade Act of 1974 stated that countries with nonmarket economies could not receive most-favored-nation status, nor government-backed credits, unless they allowed free emigration. The Stevenson addition to the Export-Import Bank Amendments of 1974 set a four-year ceiling of $300 million on Export-Import Bank credits to the Soviets. In practice, since the decision to grant MFN status to the People’s Republic of China in 1979, Jackson-Vanik has applied only to the Soviet Union and some of its Warsaw Pact allies.

Enough time has passed to judge both amendments by their results. And, unfortunately for the Jews and other refuseniks whom they were supposed to help, the record suggests that rather than promoting emigration, the amendments have given Soviet leaders one more reason, however perverse, to keep people in. Emigration rates for Soviet Jews today are far lower than they were before the amendments were adopted. It is, in fact, reasonable to infer from the history of the past 15 years that many thousands of Soviet Jews now languishing in the refusenik’s limbo might have been released had the amendments not been enacted. It is time to repeal the Stevenson Amendment and to change the Jackson-Vanik Amendment so that it might serve its proclaimed purpose.


Oppression of Russian Jews predates the era of communist government. So do American concern for their plight and U.S. government efforts to help. Long before the Russian Revolution, the tsars founded and maintained the Russian Orthodox Church as a state religion. Under Nicholas I, Christian "orthodoxy," along with autocracy and nationality, became one of the pillars of the official ideology. Partly as a result, the regime periodically oppressed all kinds of non-Russian, non-Orthodox minorities. Jews had become Russian subjects, for the most part, when the empire extended its dominion to eastern Poland. They suffered for not being Slavs and for not being Orthodox. During periods when the rules were strictly enforced, tsarist governments required the Jews to live in the "Pale of Settlement," an area in the southern and western portions of the Russian Empire first established by Catherine the Great. Quotas governed their admission to higher education. Periodically Jews in Russia faced violent repression, the notorious pogroms; the word comes from the Russian verb pogromit, "to destroy." Perhaps the best that can be said for tsarist treatment of the Jews is that many were allowed to leave.

Then, as now, Americans worried about the mistreatment of Russian Jews and tried to effect change on their behalf. As early as 1870, the issue caused friction between Washington and St. Petersburg. In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt received a delegation of American Jews concerned about the terrible pogrom at Kishinev. Roosevelt forwarded to Tsar Nicholas II a petition protesting the pogrom. The tsar’s reply prefigured the statements of his communist successors 80 years later. He said he had no need of information from outside sources about what was going on within Russia. The response of the United States also prefigured future events. In 1911, under pressure from the Congress and the American Jewish community, the Taft Administration abrogated the 1832 Russo-American commercial treaty. Interestingly enough, this early withdrawal of trade did not help Russian Jews. The tsar’s government saw it as interference in Russian internal affairs, and subjected the Jews to new reprisals.

What really helped Russian Jews was, ironically, the Russian Revolution. Many Jews participated in it; many others welcomed it. Although it is fundamentally hostile to all religions, Marxist theory at least condemned anti-Semitism, seeing it as yet another device used by the ruling class to divide and control the working classes. Lenin personally denounced it. Under the Bolsheviks, Jews became one of more than a hundred minority nationalities living within the borders of the Soviet Union. Theirs was not as advantageous a position as that enjoyed by the larger minority groups—Georgians, Uzbeks and others—who occupied distinct territories outside the boundaries of Russia. These groups were allowed to form constituent republics within the Soviet Union. Minority nationalities scattered within Russia were not, but they had, in theory at least, certain rights. In the early days of the Soviet Union, Jews had their own schools and a special department within the government, and their language was recognized. (That language was, and is, Yiddish, which the Soviets insist is the national language of the Jews. Hebrew, which is classified as a clerical language, is not recognized—a situation that creates problems for many Jewish activists in the Soviet Union today.) Several Jews—Leon Trotsky, Lev Kamenev and Grigori Zinoviev were the most prominent—occupied positions of political power. Life for the Jews in the years after the revolution was by no means ideal, but it was better than it had been under the tsars. "Equality of the Jews," Maxim Gorki boasted, "is one of the more wonderful achievements of the Revolution."

Like so many other revolutionary ideals, equality for the Russian Jews perished under Josef Stalin. The older and more cruel Stalin became, the more the Jews suffered. His anti-Semitism first surfaced in the campaign against Trotsky. In the 1930s the Jewish schools and institutions, and many of the synagogues, were shut down. There was a respite during World War II, when Jews were enlisted in the fight against fascism. But after the war, Soviet Jews felt the brunt of Stalin’s pathological tyranny. In 1948 Solomon M. Mikhoels, director of Moscow’s Jewish State Theater and a leader of the wartime Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, was murdered, beginning a widespread purge that saw hundreds of Jewish intellectuals shipped to the Gulag. There were many trials for "economic crimes," in which a disproportionate number of the defendants were Jews. In 1952 some 23 Jewish intellectuals were executed after a secret trial on charges of treason and espionage. And in the last months of his life, Stalin planned yet another massive purge, the pretext for which was the "Doctor’s Plot," a fiction in which nine physicians, six of them Jewish, were accused of having conspired to poison leading Soviet figures. Apparently, Stalin intended to conclude the Doctor’s Plot by sending Soviet Jews en masse to Siberia.

Under Nikita Khrushchev things improved somewhat for Jews, as they did for all Soviet citizens. Formally, Khrushchev stated that he considered both anti-Semitism and Zionism to be reactionary. In practice, Khrushchev was given to crude remarks about "yids." He rejected Jewish emigration to Israel, and during the final years of his leadership, in the early 1960s, a new round of prosecutions for economic crimes again found Jews bearing a disproportionate share of the punishment. Scores of synagogues were closed.

At the beginning of the Brezhnev period, in 1965, an article in Pravda explicitly condemned anti-Semitism. This remained the stated Soviet policy throughout the Brezhnev years. In February 1981, speaking on ethnic tension to the 26th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Brezhnev reaffirmed the policy, although in terms calculated to offend Jews friendly to Israel. The party, he said, "has fought and will always fight resolutely against such phenomena, which are alien to the nature of socialism, as chauvinism and nationalism, against any nationalistic aberrations, such as, let us say, anti-Semitism or Zionism."

Under Mikhail Gorbachev, official policy remains much the same. So has the reality of life for Soviet Jews—a reality in which repression is combined with limited opportunity for those willing to assimilate. Mr. Gorbachev has noted correctly that Jews are disproportionately represented in the Soviet Union’s educated professions. In fact, many Jews within the Soviet Union who have chosen not to be religious and not to support Israel publicly have managed to attain responsible positions within the system—up to a point. But Gorbachev has chosen to ignore, publicly at least, the repressive aspects of Soviet society. There are no Jews in the Politburo or in the Secretariat of the Central Committee. Jewish dissidents have convincingly documented the existence of quotas which limit or exclude Jews from mathematical and scientific training.

Few Westerners who have lived in Soviet society have failed to note the prevalence of popular anti-Semitic stereotypes. Occasionally pamphlets and articles appear in the government press that purvey such stereotypes. Jews who dare to take the first steps toward organizing themselves—even by teaching Hebrew—are subject to arrest and imprisonment. There is an active "Anti-Zionist Committee," which is led by prominent Soviet Jews, among them retired Colonel General David Dragunsky. Although it is ostensibly an independent citizens’ organization, it holds press conferences denouncing Israel in the auditorium of the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s press department, suggesting that it works closely with the Soviet propaganda apparatus. Its activities are a potent and public reminder to Soviet Jews that their lot could be much worse if the government chose to make it so.


The question of emigration for Soviet Jews, as distinct from any other citizens who might have wanted to leave, did not arise seriously until after the creation of the state of Israel in 1947 (which the Soviet Union supported). Although the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared the right to enter and leave one’s own country, Soviet citizens had no such right in practice. Nor did the Kremlin wish to make an exception for Jews. Khrushchev at one time told a foreign delegation that he opposed Jewish emigration to Israel because Israel was under the thumb of American reactionaries. Policy began to change after Khrushchev’s ouster in 1964. In 1966 Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin told Western reporters that if there were divided families that wanted to leave the Soviet Union, "the road is open to them." In 1967 the Six-Day War galvanized many Soviet Jews to consider doing just that.

But leaving was not a simple process. There has never been, in practice, a simple right to leave for any Soviet citizens, Jewish or otherwise. When Moscow has permitted emigration, it has usually been predicated on the reunification of divided families. When the authorities wish to permit more emigration, they loosen the definition of a divided family to include cousins or other distant relatives, and they allow invitations from Israel to reach Soviet citizens. When they wish to clamp down, they have many means. They can impose taxes or other financial requirements. They can permit only those with close relatives outside the country—immediate family—to leave. Or they can simply reject applications for vague reasons of state security.

What strikes any Westerner who spends enough time in Moscow to get to know the refuseniks is the terrible waste of human potential they represent. Many live quietly desperate lives; they wonder whether they will ever be able to develop their talent in the West, and fear that as years pass, their talent will erode. Some lose their jobs. Others may suffer no reprisals, and still others may go to jail for such activities as organizing and teaching Hebrew classes. But all experience fear and anguish. And all face the calamitous prospect of seeing their lives wasted simply because they wish to emigrate.

Why have the Soviet authorities chosen, in recent years, to cut down on the number of emigrés? Only they know for certain. The official reason, given by sources ranging from Gorbachev to the Anti-Zionist Committee, is that all, or nearly all, of the Jews who wanted to rejoin families in the West have done so. Those who remain, the line goes, cannot leave because in the course of their work they have been exposed to "secret" information that the state has the right to safeguard. Any American correspondent who works in Moscow knows that this is patently false. Every correspondent receives calls from Jews who want to leave, who have relatives in the West or in Israel, and who have never been exposed to anything remotely resembling a state secret. Yet they are not permitted to go. The human rights material that Reagan handed to Gorbachev at Reykjavik estimated that there are about 11,000 people who have applied to go and have been refused. Israel says there are 400,000 Jews in the Soviet Union who have asked for invitations to Israel; presumably, many of them have not formally applied for fear of the consequences of being refused. The numbers are impossible to verify, but there is no doubt that many thousands of Jews have applied and been refused and that many more would apply if they thought there was a good chance their request would be granted.

There are other, more genuine, reasons for restricted emigration. To cite them is not to agree with them. It is simply to acknowledge that they exist, and that Soviet policymakers will need countervailing incentives to let Soviet Jews emigrate. First, the Soviet Union is attempting to operate a sophisticated, yet closed, economy. This means that it trains specialists who, in certain fields such as mathematics, are the equals of any in the world. Yet, it expects them to live and work for much less than their talents could earn them in the West. A Soviet computer programmer, who might command $50,000 annually in the United States, is expected to get by on perhaps 400 rubles ($560) per month in the U.S.S.R., to scrape for a decent apartment, a car, a dacha in the country. If Moscow were to open the doors, some of the country’s most valuable specialists would have strong economic incentives to live in the West. This drain might be bearable if it could be confined to Jews. The Jewish population, by Soviet count, is less than two million. But if Jews were allowed to emigrate freely, the number might swell, since children of mixed marriages can choose their nationality. People who have been calling themselves Russian or Ukrainian might reclassify themselves as Jewish. Still, the emigration of talented Jews would be a manageable loss to a country with a population of roughly 280 million. But what if Ukrainians, Latvians, Lithuanians or Muslims began to demand the same right? The Soviets might then face a choice between political unrest among minority groups or a serious drain of educated workers and valuable labor.

From a foreign policy standpoint, releasing large numbers of Jews would conflict with important Soviet interests in the Arab states. As early as 1959, King Imam Ahmad of Yemen wrote to Khrushchev, warning that if the Soviets gave in to pressure for Jewish emigration, this would constitute "an immense danger" to the Arab nation. Khrushchev responded that there was no cause for concern because Soviet Jews did not want to leave. Today it is not hard to imagine Gorbachev receiving similar entreaties from the Arab world. One potential advantage the Arabs have in their struggle against Israel is their higher birthrate. The Soviet Union’s Jews are one of only two populations in the world with the potential to help Israel with that demographic problem.

From the standpoint of international and domestic prestige Soviet officials suspect that liberal emigration policies would only create problems for them. It would be bad enough if, after growing up with all the presumed advantages of life under mature socialism, large numbers of Jewish Soviet citizens chose to live in Israel. At least they have ethnic ties drawing them there. The fact that in the 1970s nearly half of the departing Jews, once out of the Soviet Union, chose to go to the United States must be especially irritating. It undercuts all Soviet efforts to portray the quality of life under socialism as superior to that under capitalism.

Finally, Soviet leaders frequently complain that the United States is hypocritical in its advocacy on behalf of Soviet Jews. Whatever indignities might be visited upon Soviet Jews, the Kremlin knows that the lot of Soviet Jews is better than, say, that of blacks in South Africa. Yet the United States chooses to follow a policy of constructive engagement with Pretoria and to wage a moral crusade against Moscow. Perhaps Soviet leaders are not entirely to blame if they find this policy inconsistent.


In the context of these Soviet interests and of both Russian and Soviet history, what is remarkable is not that few Jews can presently emigrate. What is remarkable is that since 1969, the Soviet government has allowed some 265,000 Jews to leave. The figures are listed in Table 1. At first glance the statistics suggest a close correlation between the years of Soviet-American détente and the years of high Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union, and a closer analysis confirms this. The Soviets have allowed high levels of Jewish emigration in periods when they felt they had a reasonable chance of getting either arms control, trade agreements or both with the United States. When those hopes evaporated, so did the flow of Jews out of the Soviet Union.



Year Emigrés

1968 229

1969 2,979

1970 1,027

1971 13,022

1972 31,681

1973 34,733

1974 20,628

1975 13,221

1976 14,261

1977 16,736

1978 28,864

1979 51,320

1980 21,471

1981 9,447

1982 2,688

1983 1,314

1984 896

1985 1,140

TOTAL 265,657

SOURCE: Figures for 1968-70 are from Robert O. Freedman, editor, Soviet Jewry in the Decisive Decade, 1971-80, Durham (N.C.): Duke University Press, 1984, p. 22. The later figures are from the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

The first period of significant Jewish emigration coincided with the first bloom of détente and peaked, along with détente, in 1973. The Jackson-Vanik and Stevenson Amendments, adopted in the fall of 1974 and enacted into law in January 1975, in retrospect look like a classic case of fixing something that was not broken. The Soviets responded not by increasing emigration, but by cutting it back, as the figures for 1975-77 show. The next emigration peak, in 1978-79, coincided with the concluding phases of the second Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II), and it is reasonable to speculate that the Soviets did not want to sour the chances for treaty ratification by continuing to restrict emigration to very low levels.

But the 1978-79 peak coincided as well with an unpublicized series of meetings and negotiations involving Soviet embassy diplomats in Washington, leaders of the American Jewish community, the late Senator Henry Jackson (D-Wash.) and the Carter Administration. Put simply, the question in these discussions was, given the high rates of emigration in 1978-79, should the United States respond by waiving the Jackson-Vanik Amendment and granting the Soviets most-favored-nation status and renewed access to Export-Import Bank credits? The reaction of the Carter Administration was tentatively favorable. But the Administration was not willing to use its power to waive the amendment unless Senator Jackson and the major Jewish organizations went along. Under the law, if the president wishes to waive the amendment, he must tell Congress that he has "received assurances" from the country in question that it will henceforth permit emigration.

The Soviets had indicated before the amendment was adopted that they would never give such formal assurances on a matter they regarded as a question of internal policy. Therefore, the United States had to decide whether the high rates of emigration in 1978-79 in themselves justified a waiver. Senator Jackson’s position was that they did not. He insisted that President Carter get, if not written, at least verbal assurances from the Soviets that the high emigration rates would continue. The Jewish organizations went along with Jackson. Faced with that lack of support, the Carter Administration chose not to ask for a waiver.

It was, in retrospect, a questionable decision. Some Jewish groups believe to this day that it was the correct one. Jerry Goodman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry supports it on the grounds that the Soviets might well have cut off the flow of emigration once they had gotten what they wanted. He notes that the Soviets began to introduce new restrictions on emigration as early as May 1979, before the decision not to seek a waiver. But others, like Hyman Bookbinder of the American Jewish Committee, believe it was "a tragic mistake" not to have granted the waiver in 1979. In any case, by the end of that year, whatever hopes the Soviets might have had for MFN status, as well as a ratified SALT II treaty, were dead. The emigration figures soon declined to their present low.


Can the United States induce the Soviets to let the refuseniks go, and, if so, how? Fortunately, the situation of Soviet Jews is not as desperate as that which faced European Jewry in the 1930s. Then, European Jews faced a regime with an avowed doctrine of racial superiority and a pathological determination to exterminate them. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, pays lip service to the concept of ethnic equality and tolerance. It flouts its human rights obligations, but the ultimate goal of its repression is not the annihilation of Soviet Jews, but their assimilation into the Soviet masses. Most importantly, Moscow has demonstrated that it can be induced to release Jews if it feels that will help it attain arms control agreements or economic benefits. No doubt, in the 1930s the proper response of Western democracies to Hitler’s regime would have been constant protest coupled with vigorous efforts to isolate Germany, both economically and morally. But what would have been the appropriate response to Hitler in the 1930s is not the appropriate response to the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

The United States could continue its present policy and, as Anatoly Shcharansky suggests, maintain and reinforce the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. It could continue to exert what diplomatic pressure it can on the Soviets to let the Jews leave. There is ample legal justification for this. The Soviet Union in 1975 signed the Helsinki Final Act, in which it pledged to act expeditiously on requests to reunite families. By reference, the Helsinki accords incorporated the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights, which asserts the right of an individual to enter or leave his or her own country. It is not unreasonable to demand that the Soviets live up to those promises. But, as noted above, the Soviets have their own reasons for keeping the Jews in. And any Soviet policymaker who argued for letting them out would find it difficult to answer a colleague who pointed out that the Soviets already tried that, in 1978-79, and got nothing in return. The unfortunate likelihood is that if the United States retains its current policy, so will the Soviet Union. The refuseniks will continue to languish, and many thousands of other Jews who might have applied to emigrate under more promising circumstances will continue to lead their lives of quiet desperation.

Humanitarian concern impels the United States to take the initiative to break this impasse. The challenge is to do this in a way that promotes the emigration of Soviet Jews without compromising American principles or interests. The history of the past 15 years suggests that there are two carrots to which the Soviets will respond: trade and arms control. Clearly, arms control policy, which so directly affects American national security, cannot be determined on the basis of what is likely to aid Soviet Jews. But trade is another matter. The trick is to devise a set of trade incentives—to be extended one at a time depending on Soviet behavior—that serves both American interests and those of Soviet Jews.

The United States can and should initiate a phased removal of the trade barriers between itself and the Soviet Union. As this process begins, Washington should explain to the Soviets, privately, that continuation of the process, and removal of the more substantial barriers, would depend on their response to the initial steps. A satisfactory response need not be as wrenching as simply opening the gates to anyone who wants to leave. This would require the Soviets to flirt with social unrest and chaos. The goal should be a controlled, steady flow of perhaps 20,000 emigrés per year until the people who want to leave have done so. If the Soviets respond by allowing emigration at about that level, the process of removing trade barriers could continue. If not, it could be stopped and rolled back.

The proper first steps in this process would be the repeal of the Stevenson Amendment and a modification of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, deleting the clause that requires the president to "receive assurances" from the Soviets on emigration. Neither step would give anything tangible to the Soviets. The Stevenson Amendment is meaningless as long as the Jackson-Vanik Amendment is in effect. The "assurances" clause in the Jackson-Vanik Amendment has been, as noted above, a particular obstacle in improving the Soviet emigration record. The Soviets have consistently maintained that they will not give the United States any assurance about something they consider an internal matter. Deleting the clause would leave the amendment in force but free the president to respond to what really matters in this issue: the number of people allowed to emigrate. These two steps would constitute a demonstration that both the executive and Congress are prepared to respond to improved Soviet performance.

If the Soviets did respond by increasing the emigration rate, the next American step would be a presidential waiver of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, giving the Soviets most-favored-nation status. This American carrot would still be largely symbolic; MFN status would put the Soviet Union in a less-than-exclusive group of 152 countries. It would mean a reduction of tariffs on Soviet manufactured goods entering the United States. But it would hardly revolutionize U.S.-Soviet trade.

In 1985 the Soviets sold only $400 million worth of goods to the United States. Petroleum products and chemicals like ammonia accounted for more than three-fourths of that total. Their prices would not be affected by reduced tariffs, since tariffs do not fall on raw materials. Nor would MFN status be likely to cause any flood of Soviet manufactured goods into the American market. That is not the case now in Japan, West Germany or other developed countries with normal trade relations with the Soviets. Regardless of tariffs, Soviet manufactured goods are simply not capable of competing in open world markets. Soviet exports to the United States would continue to be comprised largely of raw materials. The Soviets would become eligible for Export-Import Bank credits but under current federal budget restraints, those credits are all but unavailable anyway. And even if they were granted, they would be used to buy American products—an ostensible goal of American foreign policy.

Even with a waiver of Jackson-Vanik, the more substantive trade barriers would remain in place, giving the Soviets ample incentive not to backslide on emigration policy. If the Soviets continued to perform satisfactorily, the United States might consider the desire recently expressed by the Kremlin to participate in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Further down the road, the United States could review its present policies on technology sales to the Soviets, which are governed both by the Export Administration Act and by the Coordinating Committee (COCOM) of the Western allies. If the Soviets continued to meet American expectations for the release of Soviet Jews, the United States might, for instance, respond by liberalizing the rules on the export of oil exploration equipment. Although the Reagan Administration has theoretically loosened export controls on that equipment, the Soviets still find it difficult to purchase because of objections from the U.S. Defense Department, which contends that some of the technology has potential military applications.


Several broad objections can and would be raised against such a course of action. The first is that the United States should not make the first move, that the Soviets must allow significant emigration before they are "rewarded" with MFN status. This argument has two problems. First, the Soviets have made the first move—in fact they made it twice. In the early 1970s and again in 1978-79, they allowed significant levels of emigration in the expectation that it would lead to normal trade relations. In both cases they were disappointed. Moreover, there is no "giveaway" involved. A phased removal of trade barriers as outlined above would require genuine increases in emigration before the Soviets reaped any tangible benefits.

A more substantive argument holds that it is not in American interests to trade with the Soviets, particularly in high technology. Of course, the United States must protect vital military technology. But several examples from the recent history of East-West trade suggest that excessively tight restrictions on technology transfer damage the United States at least as much as the Soviets. In the early 1980s the United States successfully denied the Soviets the right to purchase American compressor technology for the gas pipeline from Siberia to Western Europe. Faced with this embargo, the Soviets managed to develop their own compressors. They may not be as good as the American brand, but they work—and the Soviets, in the bargain, have developed an important industrial capability they did not have before.

In contrast, the Soviets in the mid-1960s were able to buy a Fiat automobile factory from Italy. Twenty years later, they are still turning out a car (called the Zhiguli) that is, in effect, a 1965 Fiat. Twenty years of improvements in auto technology have thus passed them by. The general principle seems to be that denying technology to the Soviets spurs them to develop their own. Selling it to them dulls their incentive and freezes their technological progress—while the West marches on.

Particularly in the area of oil drilling and exploration, the United States gains little by making its technology difficult for the Soviets to buy. Are American interests served by the present situation, in which Soviet oil production has begun to decline? In the midst of an oil glut, it may seem so. But when the glut ends, it would clearly be an advantage to have the Soviets producing at high levels, selling their surplus on the spot market, and helping keep the world price down.

A final argument holds that the Soviets are not going to respond to trade incentives by releasing large numbers of Jews. And indeed, there are no guarantees. In comparison to the 1970s, MFN is a debased currency. The window of easy credit at the Export-Import Bank is closed. The Soviets now know that, regardless of whether they have MFN status, access to American high technology is hardly guaranteed. But Mikhail Gorbachev, no less than Leonid Brezhnev, needs that technology. Moreover, the Soviets are apparently interested in participating in the next round of Middle East peacemaking; their chances of doing so would be enhanced if they allowed some emigration and restored diplomatic relations with Israel. Finally, by releasing Anatoly Shcharansky shortly after his first meeting with President Reagan, Mr. Gorbachev seemed to be signaling that, like his predecessors, he is willing to use Soviet Jewry to pay for improved relations with the United States. That signal was reinforced after Reykjavik when the Soviets allowed refusenik David Goldfarb and his wife to go to the United States and Inessa Flerov and her family to go to Israel.

After Reykjavik the situation of Soviet Jews, like arms control and the entire East-West relationship, seems to be teetering delicately between progress and deterioration. It is an opportune time for a serious American initiative. That initiative would cost the United States nothing. It would not "give" the Soviet Union anything except incentive. If that encouragement failed, the United States would lose little. If it succeeded, the increased Soviet-American trade might have a mildly beneficial impact on the American balance of payments. More important, it could have an immeasurably beneficial impact on the lives of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Soviet Jews. Clearly, it is the Soviet government that bears the blame for their plight. But just as clearly, it is the Jews who pay the price of retaining a failed American policy. Their lives are being wasted.

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  • Robert B. Cullen is diplomatic correspondent for Newsweek in Washington. He served as the magazine_s Moscow bureau chief from 1982 to 1985.
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