Owens Goes to Bat for Russian Jews

In a gesture that has won praise from leaders of the Russian Jewish community here, Rep. Major Owens, an African-American congressman from a Brooklyn district with few Russian speakers, has sent a letter to the Russian president urging Russia to pay pensions to elderly Russian Jewish refugees in the U.S. Stating in his letter to Vladimir Putin, which he sent in late April, that refugees who left Russia during the Soviet era “have a clear and undeniable right to the money they have earned throughout their careers.” He also pointed out that in the late 1990s, Russia paid off a $400 million debt incurred by the former Czarist regime a century ago to French and English nationals. “Even though Russia’s debt to its pensioners is not nearly as large … the resolution to their problem is nowhere in sight,” Owens wrote._

Owens has not yet received a reply from Putin.

In addition to Putin, Owens sent letters to the leaders of all other former Soviet republics urging them to pay pensions to refugees who left their countries for the U.S. either before or after the breakup of the Soviet Union. He has also contacted many of his congressional colleagues urging them to take up the pension issue with Russia and the other former Soviet republics.

Owens decided to write to Putin in April after meeting with members of the Association of New Immigrants for the State of Israel and Social Justice (ANISISJ), a group that has pressed the pension issue. According to Owens, “I decided the least I could do was to contact Putin and the other [post-Soviet] leaders and express my concern…I see this as a moral issue,” he continued. “These people worked their entire lives in the Soviet Union. Just because they left the country doesn’t change that and doesn’t remove the obligation of the country to give them some support in their old age.”

Owens, who will retire later this year after 24 years as the representative of New York’s 11th Congressional District in north and central Brooklyn, said that his advocacy on behalf of Russian Jewish pensioners is indicative “of the warm relationship I have always enjoyed with the Jewish community. I have worked together with like-minded Jews on many issues, since the days back in the 1980s when I angered a lot of people in my own community by condemning Louis Farrakhan for anti-Semitism.”

Owens, whose seat is now being contested by three African-Americans, including his own son Chris, and Jewish City Councilman David Yassky, acknowledged that he may have contributed to heightening black-Jewish tensions in recent months by calling Yassky a “colonizer” for trying to capture a seat that has been held by African-Americans since the 1960s.But he insisted that his objection to Yassky has “nothing to do with his being white or Jewish, but rather because he comes in here with a million dollars and a big donor base and is trying to take over.”

ANISISJ President Yakov Goodman expressed his gratitude for Owens’ effort. “We are very grateful to Congressman Owens for pressing Putin and the other ex-Soviet leaders to pay pensions to ex-Soviet refugees that they are entitled to as a basic human right,” Goodman said.Noting that Russia is already paying pensions to people who left the country after the fall of the Soviet Union and were already pensioners at the time, “It is totally unfair to pay pensions to those people but not to those who left earlier. Those people spent their entire working lives toiling on behalf of the Soviet Union.”

Goodman said that over the past few months he has held two meetings with Russian Consul General in New York Sergei Garmonin on the pension issue. Garmonin is presently in Moscow for consultations and his office did not return queries about the matter from The Jewish Week.

Goodman, who has also been in touch with Ukrainian officials on the issue, recently received a letter from Ukrainian Consul-General M. Kirichenko stipulating that Ukraine is in the process of revamping its laws regarding payments of pensions to former Ukrainian citizens living aboard.Noting that Russia and Ukraine presently pay their pensioners $80-$100 a month, Goodman remarked, “That may seem like a very small amount, but receiving such payments would make a big difference in the quality of life of elderly Russians in Brooklyn, most of whom get by on modest monthly SSI payments (of just over $600 a month for individuals and $900 for married couples) and have to pay rents every month that equal or exceed what they get from SSI.”