239. Letter From Senator Henry M. Jackson to Secretary of State Rogers 1

Dear Mr. Secretary:

Last December a Soviet court in Leningrad convicted ten Jews of attempting to hijack an airplane in an attempt to flee to Israel. Two of the accused received the death penalty and the others harsh sentences in labor camps.

The world response to these sentences was immediate and forceful. Public demonstrations and official expressions of concern were heard across the world. The Senate passed Resolution 501 expressing its concern and calling upon the President to convey that concern to the Soviet Union.2

There is ample reason to believe that the effect of these actions on the Soviet Union was considerable: the death penalties were commuted and three trials involving 21 other Jews were indefinitely postponed. At the time it was reported that the new trials would not be held at all.

Now, in past weeks, these trials have been resumed. The alleged crimes of the defendants are vague and unspecified. The trials have been held in closed courts. No foreign press has been allowed to attend. Only very scant information on the trials has been published in the Soviet Union itself, and that is from official sources. Charges are heard of accusations and confessions that are denied by reports from close relatives of the defendants. Potential defense witnesses, many of whom have long requested permission to emigrate to Israel, have only now had their exit visa requests approved. The nature of these approvals and their timing was such as to make it impossible for the individuals [Page 705] in question to appear as defense witnesses without losing their long sought opportunity to leave the Soviet Union. Other defense witnesses are simply not allowed access to the courtroom. Prosecution evidence consists of possession of material of Jewish cultural interest: Hebrew grammars, Jewish histories and the like.

The letter of Ruth Alexandrovich, whose trial began in Riga on Monday, May 24, is typical of the “confessions” heard in the Soviet courtroom:

“One after another, my friends are arrested and, evidently, it will soon be my turn. Of what am I guilty? I don’t know how the charge will be formulated and what statute will come to the minds of my accusers. … I shall be put on trial only because I am a Jewess and, as a Jewess, cannot imagine life for myself without Israel. My entire conscious existence has been tied with the Jewish State … I who was born in faraway Latvia, call Israel my homeland, because that country is the true homeland of the Jewish people and I have not ceased feeling myself as a part of it.”

This is the crime. This, and acting on these feelings by studying Jewish culture and history, and applying, according to Soviet and international legal procedures, for a visa to emigrate to Israel.

On December 29, 1970 the Senate expressed its grave concern over the injustices to which the Jewish population of the Soviet Union was then—and is now—subjected. At that time the Senate called upon the President to convey to the Soviet government the concern of the American people as expressed in Resolution 501.

The trials continue. The persecution continues. And the simple desire of many Russian Jews to emigrate to Israel continues despite the risks to life and liberty that the expression of that desire entails.

Once before the cruel persecution of an innocent people took place while the world stood by. It must not happen again. We as a government cannot remain silent. I strongly urge you to convey to the Soviet government the sense of outrage of the American people at the senseless and inhuman oppression of the Jewish population of the Soviet Union.3

Sincerely yours,

Henry M. Jackson
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 29 USSR. No classification marking.
  2. Jackson was one of 40 co-sponsors of Resolution 501, which Senator Robert Dole (R–Kansas) tabled on December 29, 1970. For the text and ensuing debate, see Congressional Record, December 29, 1970, pp. 43883–43884.
  3. Rogers asked David Abshire, Assistant Secretary of State for Congressional Relations, to reply on his behalf. In a June 14 letter, Abshire assured Jackson that the Department shared his concern for the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union and cited as evidence the statement Bray made on May 27. See Document 238.