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June 23, 1989 - Image 36

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1989-06-23

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

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Soviet Jewry Conference
Has A Cool Guiding Hand

JAMES D. BESSER

Washington Correspondent

I

n the Soviet Jewry move-
ment, success often
carries its own disruptive
baggage.
After several decades of ef-
fort, the movement has borne
unexpected fruit. Prominent
refuseniks have been freed, a
trickle of emigration has
turned into a sudden flood
and the entire Soviet Jewry
apparatus in the West has
been stood on its ear.
Martin Wenick brings a
degree of calm profes-
sionalism to this chaotic en-
vironment. Wenick, who took
over recently as executive
director of the National Con-
ference on Soviet Jewry,
(NCSJ), is something of an
anomaly. Unlike most of his
new colleagues, he spent the
better part of a career a pro-
duct of an institution with a
distinctly un-Jewish cast —
the U.S. State Department.
Wenick also arrived at
NCSJ at a critical moment for
the big umbrella organiza-
tion, an amalgam of 45 na-
tional organizations and more
than 300 local Soviet Jewry
groups. The recent opening of
the emigration floodgates has
shifted the emphasis of the
movement from advocacy to
problems of transit and reset-
tlement — issues that have
traditionally been outside
NCSJ's primary orbit.
In the turf-conscious world
of Jewish organizations,
Wenick is helping NCSJ
redefine its role to cope with
this unsettled environment.
"It's a very interesting and
complex time," he said in a re-
cent interview. "I am convinc-
ed the Conference has an im-
portant role to play even as
we see these sudden transfor-
mations."
Wenick, an articulate man
who speaks in the measured
tones of the professional
diplomat, is no stranger to
the Soviet Union. In 27 years
of diplomatic service, he serv-
ed in Moscow and
Czechoslovakia. He was chief
of the office of Eastern Euro-
pean affairs and deputy direc-
tor for economic affairs in the
office of Soviet affairs. Along
the way, he did stints in
Afghanistan and Italy.
His exposure to the special
problems of Soviet Jews goes
back almost three decades.
"I first went to the Soviet
Union in 1960, as a student,"
he says. "During that first
trip, I went to the synagogue

Martin Wenick:
Decades of exposure

in Moscow and, with the
assistance of the Israeli em-
bassy, I helped obtain some
prayer materials for the Jews
there."
He returned to Moscow in
1970, this time as part of the
diplomatic corps. His respon-
sibilities included dealing
with Soviet activists and
dissidents, a fact that gave
him a ringside seat to the
emerging movement among
Soviet Jews eager to flee their
country.
"I arrived just at the time
of the Leningrad hijacking
appeals trials in Moscow," he
says. "So I followed the rise of
the Soviet Jewish activist
movement from its inception,
in terms of a movement. Dur-
ing my recent trip to Israel, I
was pleased to see people I
knew in Moscow in 1971 and
1972 — but this time, they
were on the other side of the
barrier."
Wenick insists that his
longstanding commitment to
the case of Soviet Jews did not
interfere with his role as a
diplomat, even though the
State Department was not
always known for the strong
sympathy for Soviet Jews
that characterized the George
Shultz years.
"I always ,accepted that I
was as an official of the
United States government,
that I had to do what was best
for the United States," he
says. "I knew it was impor-
tant to be objective, and not to
let my heritage intrude on my
professional decisions. You
may have your personal
beliefs, but you have to think
about representing your coun-
try to the best of your ability."
In the early years of the
movement, there was a
widespread perception that
the State Department was
not seriously committed to
the rescue of the Jews of the
Soviet Union — a charge that

Wenick sees in the slightly
more complex terms of a
diplomatic insider.
"In the early 70s, it was the
beginning of the dissident
movement; as officers in the
embassy, we had to test the
waters, to see what the
parameters were, what the
Soviet tolerance would be. We
had to balance conflicting fac-
tors. On one hand, there was
the desire to be responsive to
these communities of
dissidents and activists, to try
to assist them if we could.
"On the other hand, you
had to consider that you were
working within the Soviet en-
vironment. Ultimately, it was
up to the Soviets to decide
whether they were going to
permit your continued ex-
istence were. So it was a con-
stant game as we worked
along, trying to find out what
the limits were."
Also, events back in the
United States affected the
ability of the U.S. diplomatic
mission to aid the budding
Soviet Jewry movement.
"This was especially true
because of the Jewish Defense
League, and the violence
directed against Soviet
diplomats and their families
here in the United States,"
Wenick says.

Wenick is helping
NCJS redefine its
role.

As a result of both the JDL
incidents and the growing
U.S. interest in the dissident
movement, Wenick says, he
and his fellow diplomats ex-
perienced significant harass-
ment from Soviet authorities.
"It seemed during that
period that the Soviets turn-
ed a little more attention to
the Jewish members of the
staff — though the harass-
ment was not soley reserved
for the Jewish members. It
was harassment designed to
let us know they weren't hap-
py with what was going on in
the United States at the time.
In that sense, there were cer-
tain merits to their argu-
ment. Secondly, it was to in-
dicate to us that the areas we
were interested in were sen-
sitive areas. It was a message
to us."
His years in the diplomatic
corps made Wenick a
pragmatist — a fact that
helped shape his current
cautious approach to the
changes now taking place in
the Soviet scene.

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