American Jewish leaders, jarred by the accelerating economic and political chaos in Russia, are privately beginning to discuss contingency plans for coming to the aid of Russia’s vulnerable Jewish population.
Their concern is being fueled by rising panic among Jews who fear a wave of anti-Semitism as rubles evaporate into thin air and communists crank up their efforts to unseat President Boris Yeltsin.
But some wonder if Jewish communal institutions here are prepared for the consequences of a full-scale meltdown in Russia.
“We can handle a modest increase in refugees coming to this country, and Israel can certainly handle more,” said a top Jewish community relations official. “But we’re not really prepared for an all-out emergency that requires quick action on a very large scale and lots of
money. We’re not psychologically prepared, and there are indications Israel isn’t either.”
The decline in the Russian economy, which had been slowly accelerating for months, exploded last week with the devaluation of the ruble, the collapse of the banking system and chaos in the government of President Boris Yeltsin, who fired his prime minister and a number of leading economic reformers.
On Monday, the Duma — the lower house of parliament, dominated by communists — rejected Yeltsin’s choice of Viktor Chernomyrdin as the new prime minister. Chernomyrdin, who was fired from the post only five months ago, was reappointed after the abrupt firing of Sergei Kiriyenko, a reformer.
The economic and political crisis reached a peak as President Bill Clinton arrived for a previously scheduled summit, and Jewish groups gathered in Moscow for meetings of the Russian Jewish Congress.
Some Russia experts saw the clash between the president and parliament as high-stakes political jockeying.
“It may be that this represents extensive bargaining by the communists, who want to extract the maximum out of Yeltsin, and some tough bargaining in return by Yeltsin,” said Robert O. Freedman, president of Baltimore Hebrew University.
Yeltsin can submit the nomination three times. If it is rejected on the third attempt, he has the option of dissolving the Duma and calling for new elections.
“Both sides may be gambling they could win a quick election,” Freedman said.
But the gamble is a dangerous one. The political wrangling, most observers agree, will make it harder to brake the economic fall.
“Basically, the situation has to get worse — much worse — before it can get better,” said Mark N. Katz, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University in suburban Washington. “And the problem is that even if change does come, will it be the kind of change that makes things better? Or will we see a return to the old ways of doing things? That is far from clear.”
There were signs of that deterioration this week in Moscow, where international credit card providers canceled accounts and automatic teller machines were deactivated because of the drop in the value of the ruble.
By Tuesday, the ruble had lost some 30 percent of its value, and the ripples from the Russian crisis were turning into tidal waves as world markets — including the New York stock market — reacted.
The rapid deterioration in Moscow caught American Jewish officials — as well as the Clinton administration — by surprise.
“There was widespread understanding that the situation was grave for Yeltsin, but there were no predications that the ceiling would cave in,” said the leader of one major Jewish group. “The speed and extent of the collapse has led to a whole new level of concern because instability has always brought out anti-Semitism in Russia.”
But Jewish leaders here have few options beyond monitoring the situation and consulting with Russian Jewish leaders.
“We clearly can’t save the country from itself,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “That’s beyond our grasp. Our discussions this week are focusing on what to do in the face of various conceivable scenarios, even as the U.S. government grapples with its role in trying to stem the economic hemorrhage.”
One issue being discussed is how to facilitate large-scale immigration to Israel if the need arises.
“It’s important that they have the two options open to them if they feel they need to leave,” said Leonard Glickman, executive director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. “For most, the best option remains Israel. And secondly, if they qualify for the U.S. refugee program, it’s important that the pipeline remain open.”
HIAS and other groups are accelerating efforts to make sure a backlog of refugees seeking entry to the United States is cleared up as soon as possible. They are also beginning talks with Israeli officials about making sure the route to Israel is unimpeded.
The Jewish Agency, which oversees immigration from the former Soviet Union for Israel, convened a meeting of its emissaries there last week to evaluate resources available to handle a sudden influx. Another is planned this week.
But Jewish officials conceded that many Jews will remain in Russia as long as possible—in part because of community and family ties, in part because they perceive a lack of good options.
A prominent Soviet Jewry movement veteran put it in stark terms.
“The ones who remain in Russia generally have an aversion to the idea of moving to Israel,” he said. “If they leave, they’d want to come here, but it is unlikely we could handle large numbers. So many are likely to remain in what could be a very hazardous environment.”
Congress might approve a temporary increase in refugee numbers, this source said, but not for the kinds of numbers that might be required by an all-out breakdown in Russia.
And he pointed to another factor: “American Jews would probably be willing to raise large amounts of extra money to facilitate emigration to Israel. But we have a very different situation than we had in the 1970s and 1980s. There probably wouldn’t be tremendous support for funds to move them here. Too many communities had bad experiences with Soviet immigration. There’s too much bad blood.”
Shoshana Cardin, a longtime leader in the Soviet Jewry movement, said that the American Jewish community faces a stiff challenge.
“We’re not prepared for what’s happening,” she said. “We assumed the worst was behind us, and that things would keep improving in the former Soviet Union.”
But she is convinced the Jewish community will do what it needs to do.
“There’s no panic. We have people and mechanisms in place,” she said. “There are contingency plans in case things become really dire.”
Is that likely?
“Unfortunately, that seems very likely,” she said.
There’s one other issue that Jewish leaders are pressing with administration officials: the possibility that extreme economic distress will lead Russia to sell — openly or under the table — nonconventional weapons or the material to build them.
“It’s already happening, and it’s bound to get worse,” said George Mason University professor Katz. “They may get to the point where they have to sell these things to buy food, and there’s not a lot Washington can do about it unless we want to fund the Russian armed forces. That may be the most terrifying aspect of this situation.”