Jeff Jacoby

In October 1963, a group of Cleveland rabbis signed a telegram urging President John F. Kennedy to link the sale of American wheat to the Soviet Union -- a sale Kennedy had announced he would permit -- to the lifting of a Soviet ban on baking matzo for Passover. The petition was organized by two Cleveland laymen, NASA engineer Lou Rosenblum and psychologist Herb Caron, who were looking for ways to call attention to the deteriorating plight of Soviet Jews. "American wheat," the telegram said, "should not become an instrument of the official Soviet policy of persecuting the Jewish minority group."

The rabbis' plea was ignored. The view of the Kennedy administration, expressed earlier that year in a memo to Assistant Secretary of State Averell Harriman, was that "formal US Government representation to the Soviet Government would not be in the best interests of Soviet Jews." American Jewish leaders, for whom Soviet Jewry was not a pressing issue, tended to agree. "It is wrong to generate too much activity on behalf of Russian Jewry," the head of the World Jewish Congress, Nahum Goldmann, told an Israeli publication, "because this could endanger the very existence of three million Jews."

One generation later, everything had changed.

When President Ronald Reagan headed to Geneva for his first summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in November 1985, support for Soviet Jews was vocal, omnipresent -- and as much a White House priority as arms control. "Summit Parley Overshadowed by Rights Issue," a front-page story in The New York Times was headlined. It reported that the issue of Soviet dissidents, and especially the beleaguered Jewish "refuseniks" seeking to emigrate, "is one that President Reagan has said he will raise in the Geneva meeting."

In fact, Reagan not only raised the issue during the summit, he devoted an entire session to it. After all, he later told Morris Abram, the famed civil-rights lawyer who headed the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, if Moscow couldn't be trusted to keep its word when it came to Jewish emigration and other human rights, how could it be trusted on arms control?

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for