Mark Levin knows about as much as anybody about Jews in the former Soviet Union. But sitting in his office during a recent chat with reporters, he admitted he had no easy answers to the toughest question of all: When should Jewish leaders push the panic button and do everything possible to convince Russian Jews to get out while the getting is good?
The issue took on more overtones of urgency this week with a new wave of bombings in Moscow and growing U.S.-Russia strains over the NATO air war in Kosovo; the prospect that U.S. and Russian forces could clash over enforcement of an embargo on Serbia added to the sense of crisis.
"The political, economic and social conditions continue to deteriorate," Levin, executive director of the National Conference of Soviet Jewry, said. "We do not believe we've reached the stage of mass exodus. But that doesn't lessen our concern or our preparation for all possible scenarios."
He conceded that the point at which Jewish leaders should actively promote a massive rescue effort is a blurry one, and cautioned against statements that could lead to panic among an aging, anxious Russian Jewish population.
But Jewish leaders across the spectrum are acutely aware that there is a danger they could wait too long in urging Russian Jews to head for the lifeboats.
The situation in Moscow grows more chaotic by the day. The economy continues its free-fall; big loans from the International Monetary Fund may stave off disaster for a few more months, but there is no longer much hope of serious economic reform by the battered, besieged government of President Boris Yeltsin.
Nationalists and retread Communists continue to infiltrate the political mainstream, capitalizing on the spreading economic misery and on Russia's demise as a world power.
The extremists are poised to improve their position in the 1999 parliamentary elections. Predictions are risky, but it is not inconceivable that they could produce a candidate capable of replacing the retiring Yeltsin in 2000.
Bigotry and scapegoating are on the rise, with prominent officials openly voicing a conspiracy-minded anti-Semitism that echoes down the corridors of Russian history.
And U.S.-Russian relations are in a tailspin, pushed over the brink by Moscow's support for the government of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and the rise of an ominous new anti-Western sentiment.
The new diplomatic strains have significantly reduced the ability of officials here to use their diplomatic leverage to protect minorities in Russia, especially the Jews. Many Russian Jews are making preliminary inquiries about emigrating, but few have done more than that.
So what are the options for Jewish leaders here?
Levin points to the most obvious: continuing to work with U.S. officials to keep the human-rights agenda a part of the U.S.-Russia diplomatic mix. Soviet Jewry groups have been surprisingly successful in that effort, but it will be significantly harder as U.S.-Russia relations erode.
Jewish leaders can make sure the refugee infrastructure is in place in case widespread, rapid emigration becomes necessary. That's one reason Jewish groups have been so determined to preserve refugee slots that, in recent years, have not been in high demand. That could change overnight if the anti-Semitic talk in Russia produces anti-Semitic action; having extra slots available could save lives.
Leaders here can work to make sure that Russian Jews do not lose the automatic presumption of refugee status, a policy legacy of the refusenik era.
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