SOVIET UNION: Ransom for Soviet Jews?

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As Presidential Adviser Henry Kissinger returned from Moscow last week with a massive U.S.-Soviet trade deal virtually sewed up, a concerted move was under way in Congress to block the legislation required to implement it. The reason: a new Soviet decree that requires Soviet Jews to pay exorbitant exit fees in order to emigrate to Israel. According to many irate Congressmen, the levies, which Russian Jews cannot afford to pay, constitute a Soviet stratagem to extract ransom money from Western, notably American Jewry. That now appears to be a miscalculation on Moscow's part, and one that could cost the Soviet dear.

The reason is that any trade deal granting Russia most-favored-nation status will require congressional consent. As Senator Abraham Ribicoff, who heads the hardening congressional opposition to expand trade with the Soviets, said last week, "I do not see how any Senator or Congressman could vote for new trade concessions for the Soviet Union at a time when the Russians are trading in human lives. The ransoming of Soviet Jews is one Soviet export all decent men must absolutely refuse to accept." The Administration is also troubled. Although doing business with unpalatable regimes is no novelty in the U.S., continued negotiations for trade with Russia in an election year might well cost Nixon votes among America's 6,000,000 Jews.

Illegal Levies. The new levies, which have provoked worldwide protest, are based on the reasoning that would-be emigrants must pay for the free higher education they have received from the state. "We are not in the business of training engineers for Israel," explained one Soviet official. But Jewish activists in Russia characterized the education levies as both punitive and illegal. Since the levies range from 4,800 rubles for a teachers-college education to 21,000 rubles for a Ph.D., and the average university graduate earns from 120 to 150 rubles a month, one Jewish scientist in Moscow observed that it would take him 200 years to accumulate the money. The Soviets admit that university graduates repay the expense of their education by their labor within four or five years.

Civil Rights Leader Valery Chalidze argues that the law violates Article 121 of the Soviet constitution, which guarantees free education with no strings attached. He also points out that the levies have reduced some Jews to an illegal condition of "debt bondage," or permanent peonage. The world-famous Soviet electrochemist, Benjamin Levich, puts it more succinctly: "The levies may create a new category—the slaves of the 20th century."

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