ARE the United States loan guarantees that Israel needs to help its flood of new immigrants a political matter - or merely humanitarian?
Many American Jewish leaders have said the loans are strictly humanitarian. These leaders have tried to avoid any hint of linkage between provision of the guarantees and the behavior of the Israeli government. (Some of them were horrified when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir first requested $10 billion in guarantees. According to reports in the Washington Jewish Week, they begged Mr. Shamir to take a back seat to their efforts to secure the guarantees on humanitarian grounds.)
Of course, the challenge of building new lives for Jews fleeing Soviet lands has a strong humanitarian appeal. But so does the challenge of building a hopeful future for 4.2 million Palestinians suffering from occupation or dispersion; or a project to give aid to 18 million victims of South African apartheid; or the hundreds of millions of other folks throughout the world - and at home - who could use a helping hand.
There is one particular reason, however, why Jews fleeing former Soviet lands might rightfully expect American taxpayers to give them special treatment. In the early 1970s, the US Congress passed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which made normalization of relations between the world's two nuclear megapowers conditional on Soviet Jews winning the right to free emigration. So perhaps there is a commitment implied there, to help Soviet Jews find their feet once they finally win this right.
(Absorption of these migrants could be cheaper if Jews were allowed, as most might prefer, to come to the US rather than to Israel. But Shamir was against giving them that freedom of choice. His aim was always closer to the ideology and politics of settling Jews in "Greater Israel" rather than meeting their own, merely "human," preferences.)
Even if we concede that Jackson-Vanik puts the US under a humanitarian obligation to help Soviet Jews, US taxpayers and government officials still can't ignore the political …