A refusenik’s answer to Iran
These days, like many Israelis and American Jews, I find myself in a precarious and painful situation. Those of us who believe that the nuclear agreement just signed between world powers and Iran is dangerously misguided are now compelled to criticize Israel’s best friend and ally, the government of the United States.
However, this situation is not unprecedented. Jews have been here before, 40 years ago. In the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon inaugurated his policy of detente with the Soviet Union with the aim of ending the Cold War by normalizing relations between the two superpowers.
Among the obstacles Nixon faced was the Soviet Union’s refusal to allow on-site inspections of its weapons facilities. Moscow did not want to give up its closed political system that prevented information and people from escaping and prevented prying eyes from looking in.
Yet the Soviet Union, with its atrophied economy, badly needed cooperation with the free world, which Nixon was prepared to offer. The problem was that he did not demand nearly enough from Moscow in return. So as Nixon moved to grant the Soviet Union most-favored-nation status, and with it the same trade benefits as U.S. allies, Democrat Sen. Henry Jackson of Washington proposed a historic amendment, conditioning the removal of sanctions on the Soviet Union’s allowing free emigration for its citizens.
By that time, tens of thousands of Soviet Jews had asked permission to leave for Israel. Jackson’s amendment sought not only to help these people but also to change the character of detente, linking improved economic relations to behavioral change by the USSR. Without the free movement of people, the senator insisted, there should be no free movement of goods.
The Republican administration in the White House objected furiously. Yet Jewish activists inside the USSR wanted freedom for all Soviet Jews and we believed that would result only from unrelenting pressure to bring down the Iron Curtain. This is why, despite risks and KGB threats, we publicly supported the amendment. American Jewish organizations also actively supported the policy of linkage.
Now all that was needed for the amendment to become law was enough principled congressional Republicans to take a stand against their own party in the White House. A Republican senator from New York, Jacob Javits, helped put together the bipartisan group that ensured passage.
Soviet authorities were infuriated by the law. Jewish emigration was virtually halted and the repression of Jewish activists increased. In 1977, I was arrested and accused of high treason, allegedly as a spy for the CIA. Yet in the end our cause was victorious. The amendment made the principle of linkage the backbone of the free world’s relations with the USSR.
Today, an American president has once again sought to achieve stability by removing sanctions against a brutal dictatorship without demanding that the latter change its behavior. And once again, outspoken Jews — leaders of the state of Israel, from the governing coalition and the opposition alike — are sounding an alarm. The United States can either appease a criminal regime or stand firm in demanding change in its behavior.
A critical question is, who will have the vision and courage to be the next Sens. Jackson and Javits.
Natan Sharansky, a human rights activist and former political prisoner in the Soviet Union, is chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.