The Jews of struggle

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Attending the opening of the Soviet Jewry Exhibition (“Jews of Struggle”) currently on display at Bet Hatefutsoth brought back vivid memories about the campaign which dominated my public life for 30 years and launched me into the Jewish international arena.

In 1959, as a young graduate visiting Israel, well before the cause of Soviet Jews had been adopted by world Jewry, I was recruited by Shaul Avigur, head of Nativ, the quasi secret Israel body handling Soviet Jewish affairs. Avigur was an extraordinary Israeli who, behind the scenes, had a major influence on many policy decisions during Israel’s formative years.

I was engaged initially in the campaign in Australia. In 1962, in what proved to be a ground breaking precedent, the Australian government was persuaded to become the first country in the world to raise the plight of Soviet Jews at the Third Committee of the United Nations.

In 1965 I published a study entitled “Soviet Jewry and Human Rights” based on Soviet sources which documented state sponsored anti-Semitism and outlined the denial of human rights to Soviet Jews. It achieved international prominence primarily because the editor of the Australian Communist Party newspaper contributed a preface endorsing the central theme and urging the Soviets to review their policies.

The Australian Communist Party split over the issue. This ignited a fierce global debate among Jewish communists and fellow travelers who until then had slavishly denied or apologized for Soviet anti-Semitism.

About the same time, as a young Australian representative to the World Jewish Congress, I became engaged in a dispute with its charismatic president Dr. Nahum Goldmann, who opposed public demonstrations on the grounds that this would only intensify Soviet oppression against the hapless Jewish minority. Goldmann also insisted that most Soviet Jews were assimilated and thus few would ever contemplate leaving the Soviet Union.

Young as I was, at a WJC governing board meeting in Strasbourg in 1967, I had the temerity of accusing Goldmann of shtadlanut and pious conformity, condemning him for relying exclusively on quiet diplomacy. To my pleasant surprise – and I say this with humility – I received a standing ovation, provoking Goldmann to employ his silver tongue for over an hour attacking me. All this led to the formation of an opposition group which ultimately forced the WJC leaders to endorse public protest.

Not surprisingly, I was denied entry into the USSR. But in 1978 when the travel company which I had founded was designated to handle the travel arrangements of the Australian Olympic team to the Moscow Olympics, the Soviet authorities were obliged to provide me with entry visas. For two years I enjoyed access and developed close and unique personal links with refuseniks and dissidents.

My visits were truly surrealistic. I would spend a few hours discussing Olympic travel arrangements with the Soviet authorities and then an Australian Embassy car provided at the instructions of the Australian prime minister transported me to the homes of refuseniks and dissidents. KGB operatives were at all times openly monitoring me.

The summaries of my discussions with Jewish activists (many of whom are now living in Israel), negotiations with Soviet officials on behalf of the WJC and Nativ, and details of conflicts which prevailed between Nativ and Soviet Jewish activists, today make moving reading.

I was privileged to witness first hand the miracle of a few hundred incredibly heroic Soviet Jews who, backed by their kinsmen throughout the world, altered the course of Jewish history and made a dramatic contribution to the downfall of the evil Soviet empire.

Many of the refuseniks with whom I liaised and befriended had originally occupied positions of privilege among the Soviet elite. They lacked any Jewish religious or cultural background and had been educated in an atheistic Marxist environment which repudiated all Jewish national and religious values. But in the wake of the Six Day War, these assimilated Jews suddenly emerged as Zionist superheroes. Despite the realization that their chances of success were marginal at best, they displayed a willingness to sacrifice everything, placing themselves in great physical danger in order to renew their Jewish identity and reconnect with the Jewish people.

They were transformed into pariahs in Soviet society and many were arrested for defying the most powerful totalitarian force in the world. In the course of time, when the history of this generation is written, these noble heroes, probably the last of the real Zionists, will be recognized amongst the most courageous and determined Jews of this era.

It is a sad reflection and disgrace for the entire Jewish people that many of these heroic former refuseniks and “Prisoners of Zion” resident in Israel are today destitute in their old age and virtually forsaken by the state.

It was in the course of the campaign that I first personally encountered the phenomenon of anti-Jewish Jews. The precursors of today’s demonizers of Israel were the Jewish communists and their fellow travelers who shamelessly defended Soviet state sponsored anti-Semitism and applauded the show trials in which Jews were jailed and executed on trumped up charges of espionage, nationalism and economic crimes.

I also witnessed the Jewish establishment, which initially behaved like trembling Israelites and resisted calls for public protest action seeking to rely exclusively on silent diplomacy. It was not until after the wild Kahanists made headlines by committing violent acts against the Soviet diplomats that intensified pressure from the “Jewish street” forced the leadership to become engaged. Even when Mikhail Gorbachev visited the United States in December 1987, the established Jewish leadership initially resisted calls for holding a public demonstration fearing a small turnout in winter. Yet when public pressure forced them to proceed, over 250,000 Jews gathered in Washington – the greatest demonstration of Jews in the history of the Diaspora – having a profound impact toward pressuring the Soviets to open the gates.

My visits to Russia ended abruptly when Australia joined the boycott of the Moscow Olympics and I was arrested in the Soviet capital and charged with obtaining access to state security secrets from those denied permits to go to Israel.

The first secretary of the Australia Embassy was roughed up and I was ultimately expelled and told that I would never again set foot on Soviet soil.

To my astonishment, seven years later in 1987, the Moscow Chief Rabbi of the Archipova Street synagogue (then controlled by the KGB) invited my wife and I to Moscow to be their guests over Rosh Hashana and address worshipers from the pulpit during the service. Giving a Zionist address in a broken Yiddish to a packed synagogue in the presence of my refusenik friends who had previously never set foot in this KGB controlled Jewish house of worship, was a profoundly emotional experience.

I subsequently learned that I was the first international Jewish leader invited by the Soviets to evaluate the impact of Gorbachev. When I reported to the Soviet Jewry presidium that Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms were real and not the usual cosmetic Soviet PR, many of my colleagues believed I had been duped.

That was followed by a series of other visits and within a few months we had negotiated the creation of the first Jewish cultural centre which we named after Solomon Mykhoels, the famous Yiddish poet murdered in 1948 by Stalin. The grand opening in the presence of a galaxy of international Jewish personalities including Elie Wiesel, Soviet officials and ambassadors was a historic event.

Simultaneously we obtained permits to launch the first Hebrew song festivals in which Dudu Fisher and Yaffa Yarkoni performed in major Moscow and Leningrad concert halls. The images of tears streaming down the faces of the Jewish audience will remain forever imbedded in my mind.

In retrospect the liberation of Soviet Jewry represented one of the greatest triumphs of the Jewish people, second only to the establishment of the Jewish state. It was also a great triumph for people power.

This extraordinary campaign also had a massive impact on Jewish communities throughout the world. It swept up and united Jews of all persuasions from all corners of the world. Even when bitter differences over tactics prevailed, Jews united for the common objective of freeing Soviet Jews. Their determination to achieve the impossible enabled them to triumph over even their most powerful adversaries.

The liberation of Soviet Jews also reflected the empowerment of the Jews in the wake of the creation of Israel. In the absence of a Jewish state and the contribution of Nativ, this victory of a handful of heroic Soviet Jews against a totalitarian superpower could never have been achieved, despite the support of world Jewry.

It also brought to the Jewish cause a new generation of idealistic Western youngsters many of whom subsequently occupied and still retain top leadership roles at senior levels of Jewish activity. Quite a few, inspired by the courage and dedication of the refuseniks and Prisoners of Zion, also settled in Israel.

To confront the challenges and threats facing Israel and the Jewish people today, we must recall the spirit of determination and unity which motivated us during those days. If we could recapture that spirit we would once again be able to demonstrate that it is within our capacity to achieve the seemingly impossible.

The writer, a former long standing head of the Australian Jewish community and former chairman of the Governing Board of the World Jewish Congress, was one of the early leaders of the international campaign to free Soviet Jewry.
ileibler@netvision.net.il

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