Americans, Soviets meet at MITBy Harold A. Stern
Soviet scientists who came to MIT to participate in the Second Joint American-Soviet Seminar on Medical Engineering were greeted by protests against the treatment of religious dissidents in the Soviet Union.
Approximately one dozen Hillel members demonstrated at the conference, which was organized by Corning Glass Works and the USSR State Committee for Science and Technology.
A prepared statement read by Hillel program director Miriam Rosenblum said, "Though we welcome these visitors, we feel it important to remind them that cultural and scientific cooperation will be incomplete as long as Soviet scientists who desire to emigrate, or who wish to pursue their own cultural and religious traditions, are dismissed from their positions, harassed, and imprisoned."
Rosenblum said the protest was "another one in the continuing scenario -- when the Soviets have interactions in the United States, we send them back with a message that goes right back to Moscow."
"We also educated the MIT community a little bit," she said. "We are trying to make them more aware [of the treatment of the dissenters]."
James M. Utterback, director of the Industrial Liason Program that sponsored the event, personally "agrees very strongly" with the statements made by Hillel. He believes that their views were "a reflection of the views of the community."
"I have done a lot of soul-searching," Utterback said. "I have refused to speak to any Russian for [several] years" as a result of their actions in Afghanistan, he continued.
Utterback hoped the scientists "will go away from this meeting and think about it [the demonstrations]. It will not create any permanent change, but it could produce good."
The seminars were held at MIT because "we were asked to provide a neutral meeting ground between the two societies," according to Utterback.
The symposium has not been held the past two years, Utterback said, primarily because of the rising tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Utterback issued a release stating, "Our participation as host for this conference is based on the belief that it presents an important opening for an exchange of views, that it may help to improve human health and welfare in our societies, and that it will not be harmful to the cause of human rights or academic freedom in the Soviet Union."
He hoped that in addition to the benefit of the sharing of medical technology, the conference might lead to "better relations between the US and the Soviet Union."
"We should talk with them, because that is the only way to make progress. We have to come to a common meeting ground. There are many problems that we share in common." He believes that this is "perhaps the central issue of our time."
Hillel was invited to meet with the Soviet scientists over lunch, but that invitation was rescinded, following the actions of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), who forced their way into Kresge Auditorium in order to protest.
"The scientists had been very receptive to meeting with students from Hillel. They [the JDL] disrupted private negotiations we had been engaged with," said Rabbi Daniel Shevitz. The Soviets were "scared away," he continued.
"The scientists felt uncomfortable about meeting with us," Rosenblum said, which she called "understandable."
Hillel plans on presenting all of the scientists with a private letter before they leave MIT, she continued.
The Russian participants have not expressed their opinion of the demonstrations, said Utterback. "The scientists have been a bit shocked. They have not said a word."
Also, the Soviets may have been fearful of appearing to sympathize with the plight of the refuseniks. "The Russians have been very reticent... They are not politicians," he explained.
Utterback added, "The Soviets do not understand what a university like this is all about. I hope they understand by the time the conference is over."