Soviet Aide Asks Jews to Be Patient on Emigres
Leaders of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry said Tuesday that they had not expected to live long enough to hear an official of the Soviet Foreign Ministry plead for patience and understanding of Moscow’s developing emigration policy.
But an official of the Soviet ministry--which a few years ago would speak the conference’s name only through clenched teeth--did just that in an address to the group’s annual assembly.
Yuri A. Reshetov, chief of the ministry’s Department of Humanitarian Affairs, said the list of Jewish refuseniks, people who have been denied permission to emigrate, has declined from a high of 11,000 to just 200.
Some ‘Still Suffering’
“Nevertheless, I understand the feelings of those people who are still suffering,” Reshetov said. “I can assure you that a considerable part of my working day is devoted to these cases.”
The conference was created in 1971 to badger the Soviet government to permit the free emigration of Jews and to allow Jewish citizens who remain to practice their religion freely. For most of the conference’s 18-year life, Moscow dismissed its entreaties as unacceptable meddling in internal Soviet affairs.
But no longer. Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev has made it clear that he intends to refurbish Moscow’s human rights reputation, and the Soviet authorities are now actively courting groups they once dismissed as annoying scolds.
Reshetov’s speech was inserted into a program featuring a roll call of families still refused permission to emigrate. When he completed his remarks, he was peppered with questions, most of them accompanied by polite but firm complaints about continuing abuses of the rights of Soviet Jews.
One member of the audience suggested that the Soviet Union dissolve the official Anti-Zionist Committee, formed in 1983 to refute complaints of persecution of Soviet Jews, before an international conference on information begins next year in Copenhagen.
“Thank you very much for your advice,” Reshetov replied.
Another questioner, noting that anti-Semitism is illegal in the Soviet Union, demanded to know when there will be arrests and prosecutions for anti-Semitic activities.
“If anybody is going to violate the criminal rules, he should be punished,” Reshetov said. But, invoking free speech in a way that was seldom heard a few years ago, Reshetov said that no one can be arrested simply for holding or expressing an opinion, no matter how repugnant.
Reshetov said the Soviet government has proposed legislation to ease restrictions on emigration and to guarantee freedom of religion. Asked when the laws will be enacted, he said that is up to the Supreme Soviet.
Nevertheless, Reshetov said that all restrictions on the teaching of Hebrew and Yiddish have been repealed. When a member of the audience related that a Hebrew class was banned recently in Kiev, Reshetov replied that there may be local officials who have not yet gotten the word from Moscow.