While still a student, I was privileged to be recruited to the cause of Soviet Jewry by Shaul Avigur, the Israeli who laid the foundations for one of the most successful human rights campaigns in the 20th century.
My involvement included lobbying the Australian government to become the first country to raise the persecution of Soviet Jews at the UN; publishing a monograph documenting anti-Semitism, which brought about a split among Western communist parties; and battling the “silent diplomacy” strategy of World Jewish Congress president Nachum Goldmann. From 1978, I gained entry visas to the Soviet Union, enabling me to develop close links with Soviet refuseniks and activists – which I continued until 1982 when I was arrested and expelled. In 1987, I was one of the first international Jewish leaders to be invited by the Soviets to evaluate the impact of Gorbachev’s reforms on the Jewish arena.
I negotiated with Soviet officials and Michael Gluz, a Russian theatrical entrepreneur, to establish the first Jewish cultural center in Russia since the Bolshevik Revolution. It was named after Solomon Mikhoels, the renowned Jewish actor whom Stalin brutally murdered together with other Jewish intellectuals in 1948.
The 1989 opening ceremony, which attracted Jewish leaders from all over the world, was perceived as an announcement by the Gorbachev regime that fundamental changes in relation to the Jews were being introduced.
A few weeks ago, I accepted an invitation from Gluz to be the guest of honor at the 15th anniversary of the Solomon Mikhoels Center.
Having witnessed the suffering and persecution of the indomitable refuseniks during the Soviet era, the celebrations were a profoundly moving experience for me. Together with 3,000 Jews in one of Moscow’s leading concert halls, I enjoyed a marvelous pageant of Russian, Israeli, and American Jewish dance, song, and theatrical acts, including Israeli singer Dudu Fisher, who had sung at the original opening concert. Greetings were conveyed by an emissary of President Putin, and a message from Ariel Sharon was delivered by Israel ambassador Arkady Milman.
The festival reflected the renewal of Jewish pride among Russian Jews. Whereas during the communist era Jews tended to deny their Jewish ancestry to avoid discrimination, today most Jews, including those who had been denied access to their Jewish heritage during the Soviet regime, display pride in their Jewish identity and support Israel openly.
It is also paradoxical that while anti-Semitism in the region remains a potent force, Russian Jews are more optimistic about the future of their children in Russia than many of their kinsmen in Western Europe.
That does not negate the fact that large segments of the Jewish community live in abject poverty and are dependent on support from the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, a large proportion of the nouveau riche are visible Jews. Many of these billionaires consider it politically advantageous to advertise their Jewish links by financing cultural and religious activities.
There is no central representative Jewish body capable of providing leadership or determining priorities for public funding. The most significant umbrella body is the Russian Jewish Congress..
DURING THE Yeltsin period, the Moscow Central Synagogue was the premier rabbinical body. That changed when the principal benefactor, Vladimir Goussinsky, clashed with President Putin and emigrated to Israel. The vacuum was filled by Lev Leviev, the wealthy diamond tycoon who also resides in Israel.
The Chabad presence in Russia is extraordinary, although other than Leviev, the funding originates mainly from non-observant donors. The headquarters in Moscow is a seven-story state-of-the- art building that includes a sophisticated computer training center, a well-equipped gymnasium, theaters, restaurants providing subsidized kosher meals, and possibly the most luxurious mikve in the world. In the context of Moscow, such amenities are somewhat surreal.
The Jewish educational network, designed to imbue youngsters with Jewish values and ensure continuity, is remarkable. Thousands of children attend Chabad and other Orthodox day schools, and the Jewish Agency and JDC also maintain institutions. But much of the success in the religious and cultural arena is associated with the accompanying economic benefits and superior level of Jewish facilities.
Israel remains the principal vehicle providing Jewish identity for Russian Jews. Most committed Russian Jews now live in Israel, and there are strong family links between both communities.
Putin is a far cry from a Western-style democratic leader, buthe has the support of most Russians. They yearn for strong leadership rather than a liberal democratic regime and believe that the former KGB official will maintain order, restore Russia as a great power, modernize the economy, and eradicate the rampant corruption.
In terms of Jews and Israel, Putin tends to follow the pro-Arab European line, but he remains open-minded, and there is even leeway for strengthening relationships. As long as Russia’s national interest demands a good relationship with the US, he will avoid needless confrontations with the Jews.
Those who recall the miserable former Soviet lifestyle are usually stunned when they return to Moscow and encounter the luxury and glitz, the five-star hotels, the designer boutiques, the restaurants, and the neon lights.
With all its weaknesses, the new Russia is a remarkable contrast to the former totalitarian regime that political analysts insisted could never be reversed. The collapse of the evil Soviet empire, combined with the presence of a million former Soviet Jews in Israel, can only be regarded as one of the most stunning achievements of the past century. And it must always be remembered that that a few hundred heroic Soviet Jewish refuseniks and dissidents backed by Jews in the free world were the critical factor in bringing this about.
So on Pessah, our festival of freedom, or whenever we feel pessimistic about our current lot, we should direct our thoughts to the saga of the Soviet Jews and remind ourselves that in Jewish life, where there’s a will there’s a way.