What are the four words that brought a million Russian Jews to Israel?
Any veteran of the struggle to free Soviet Jewry will probably think of the four words: “Let My People Go”, but the four words I have in mind are: “Most Favored Nation Treatment”, the words of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment submitted by Sen. Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson and Rep. Charles Vanik to the U.S. Congress.
The Amendment provided that in order for the Soviets to get most favored nation treatment in trade with the U.S. they must let the Jews go. This connection was anathema to the Soviets, but very effective, as history shows.
Every one of the activists inside and outside the USSR played a role in the exodus of Russian Jewry, but I think the Jackson Amendment was the most effective lever. I am convinced that Sen. Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson and Congressman Charles Vanik should be recognized as “righteous gentiles”.
I had a small part in the saga of the Jackson Amendment as described below.
By 1973, tens of thousands of Jews had come to Israel from the Soviet Union. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment was before Congress. It linked “most favored nation” treatment which the USSR needed economically with progress on “let my people go.”
Seventeen thousand Russian immigrants to Israel signed a Petition to Congress to adopt the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. The Petition ran to many volumes. Yechezkel Pulerevitch, a wonderful person, was the Chairman of the Organization of former Prisoners of Zion in the USSR which sponsored the Petition. He was a Betari who had been imprisoned for many years in a Siberian forced labor camp. He described his experiences in his book, “Short Stories of the Long Death”.
Even after he was released, he was a victim of the Soviet policy not to allow former prisoners to leave the country, in order to prevent them from revealing their experiences. Menachem Begin got the Prime Minister of Norway to intervene so that Pulerevitch, his wife and their only son could come to Israel. His troubles did not end there. His son, who was named Shabi for Shlomo Ben Yosef, was a physician, and he was the doctor on the Israel submarine “Dakar”, which was lost with its entire crew. Despite these blows, he remained a kind, optimistic person.
Menachem Begin called me. He wanted to send Yechezkel to Washington to deliver the Petition to Senator Jackson and he wanted me to accompany him, to make all the arrangements. In addition to delivering the Petition on the steps of the Capitol, he wanted me to arrange for a full page ad in the New York Times publicizing the Petition.
On the night before the flight, Mr. Begin invited me to his home for final instructions. Also present were Yitzhak Shamir (who later followed Mr. Begin as Prime Minister) and Dov Shilansky (later to become the Speaker of the Knesset), who were then in charge of the immigrant division of the Likud.
Once we were in the U.S., Mr. Begin gave me a third assignment to translate into English the Stenogram of the Knesset Session in which almost all the speakers expressed overwhelming support for the Amendment. Then I was to present and explain it personally to Senator Jackson. I fulfilled his instructions. I remember how I walked alongside the Senator through the long corridors of the Senate explaining it to him and then giving him the original extract from the Knesset Record Mr. Begin had sent me.
Even before that, I arranged for us to meet Senator Jackson and Congressman Vanik on a morning in the middle of the week on the Capitol steps to present the Petition. The National Conference on Soviet Jewry, with which I cooperated, wanted to take over this event but I refused, and we agreed only that they would send the Russian Jewish emissary who was assigned to them to be present as well.
I tried to arrange all the details, but I forgot to check one thing. Yechezkel stayed overnight with us in Scotch Plains, NJ, near Newark Airport. I knew that there was a shuttle from LaGuardia Airport to Washington every hour and assumed that there was a similar shuttle from Newark. This was a mistake. There were only about two flights from Newark to Washington and the result was that we came late. We managed to partly rescue the situation. Senator Jackson received the Petition and he and Yechezkel both spoke, but the media results were not successful.
The National Conference was planning a mass rally at the Capitol for the following Sunday. On my preliminary visit to Washington, Moshe Brodetzky had informed me of a meeting of the local chapter of the Conference to plan the demonstration. We both attended and I was astonished to hear that there was no plan to invite Senator Jackson, but only some Congressmen who had a minor role in the campaign for Russian Jews. I addressed the meeting and told them that Jackson was the one who symbolized the struggle in the public mind and that no one would understand why he was not there. I suggested they get on the phone to New York and present this view strongly to the National leaders. They did this and Senator Jackson was invited to play a central role.
When we did not receive enough publicity for our presentation, Jerry Goodman, Executive Director of the Conference, suggested that we re-present the “final signatures” to Senator Jackson as the central activity of the National Conference demonstration. This was good for all concerned since they did not have an attractive focus for the rally. On that Sunday, Yechezkel and I again went to Washington where he again presented the final signatures to Senator Jackson. This time there was lots of publicity.
We were in Washington a third time to attend a reception in Congress for supporters of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. This time Senator Jackson and Yechezkel embraced as old friends.
I asked the National Conference to pay for an ad in the New York Times. They said that their graphic artist could prepare the ad, but that they did not have money to pay for it. I visited my client, Aaron Ziegelman, a wealthy real estate man, and told him what it was about. Without extra words he called his secretary to bring his checkbook and signed a check for $3,000. After that, the Conference found someone to make up the balance of $1,000 and we published the ad. The headline was “Last Week 17,000 Russian Jews Wrote a Letter to Your Congressman.”
When we returned to Israel we learned that there had been a strike of radio and TV while we were in America. Everyone I met said, “We didn’t hear anything about your mission. Why were you late to Jackson?” I replied, “If you know we were late to Jackson, you must have heard something!”
I was requested to report to the World Council of Herut-Revisionists on our mission. I started off, “The late President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, said when he returned from a visit to France, ‘I am the man who accompanied Jackie Kennedy to Paris.’” There was complete silence in the packed hall at this unusual opening. I went on, “In the same way I say, I am the man who accompanied Yechezkel Pulerevitch to Washington.” At this point Menachem Begin called out, “But she is prettier.” I continued, “We met Senator Jackson three times. The first time we both shook hands with him. By the second and third times he shook hands with me, but embraced Yechezkel warmly.
I cannot end without saying again that Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson was a righteous Gentile. His four fateful words, “Most favored nation treatment” eventually brought a million Russian immigrants to Israel.