The Jews of Silence Are Finding Their Voice

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THE WINDS of change sweeping through the Soviet Union are having a direct impact on Jews. This is no longer in question. Messianic times have not arrived, but events in recent weeks confirm that there is now genuine potential for a dramatic revival of Soviet Jewish religious and cultural life.

The festival of Jewish culture in Moscow and Leningrad in February, in conjunction with the opening of the Solomon Mikhoels Cultural Centre, vividly testifies to radical changes in Soviet policy. These changes include the Soviet acceptance of the study of Hebrew language and a willingness to review in their totality the hardline policies, dating back to the Revolution, designed to destroy Judaism.

In February, 30,000 Soviet Jews participated directly in events that even 12 months ago would have been undreamt of in the Soviet Union. The extraordinary wave of enthusiasm that engulfed thousands of Jews hitherto inactive in Jewish life provided living proof that the Soviet Jewish diaspora is far from doomed.

It was also astonishing and impressive to see the number of Jewish cultural and religious activists who flocked into Moscow from all over the Soviet Union – from cities as diverse as Odessa, Kiev, Tashkent, Riga, Tallinn, Tbilisi, Lvov, Kishinev, Sverdlovsk and Leningrad. The word-of-mouth network drew them to Moscow like a magnet once they heard that a major Jewish cultural event was underway.

These Jewish activists met under the auspices of the Jewish Cultural Association (JCA), the umbrella organisation covering religious and cultural groups throughout the Soviet Union. It is hoped that the JCA will be recognised by the Soviet authorities as the Jewish representative body in the Soviet Union.

The reports from different regions submitted at that meeting were amazing. New centres are being established almost weekly and a wide range of other Jewish cultural activities are underway, demonstrating that a Jewish presence has somehow prevailed even in the most remote areas.

The 10 concerts in Moscow and Leningrad by Israeli and overseas artists inspired an emotion unprecedented since 1967. Black-market prices for tickets soared to more than 10 times the official price. There were few dry eyes in the capacity audiences, which reflected intense feelings of joy as well as of sadness and nostalgia.

There were other significant factors associated with the opening of the Mikhoels Centre. For example, the event attracted the greatest concentration of international Jewish leadership to have assembled in the Soviet Union. More than 80 Jewish leaders from all over the world participated in the opening – among them Elie Wiesel and World Jewish Congress (WJC) President Edgar Bronfman. The ambassadors from the principal Western countries were present and delivered personal messages from heads of state or foreign ministers.

Among the participants – many of whom had previously been denied visas – were some remarkable individuals. Perhaps the most remarkable was former Prisoner of Zion Yuli Edelstein, whose visa, together with those of other Israelis, was processed through the Soviet embassy in Australia. Until two years ago Edelstein was still languishing in a Soviet prison. Now he came on behalf of the Soviet Jewry Zionist Forum, the Israeli organisation representing former Soviet Jews and headed by Natan Sharansky. Edelstein participated with us in political meetings with Soviet government officials.

During the festival, the Mikhoels Centre buzzed with daily lectures on Jewish history, social gatherings, exhibitions of Jewish art, and a host of other activities taken for granted in the West. Yet until recently, the only place in the Soviet Union in which Jews could legally gather, even for social purposes, was at the synagogue.

The Soviets granted further concessions.

In Moscow, Konstantin Hartchev, chairman of the Council of Religious Ministers, and representatives of the Ministry of Culture assured us that Hebrew classes would be actively promoted at the new Jewish centres. Libraries were already functioning. The publication of Jewish cultural journals was in train. Undertakings were given that Western Jewish educators and rabbis, including Israelis, would be invited to cultural seminars. The WJC established the basis for a new centre in Leningrad, in conjunction with the synagogue.

BUT EXCITEMENT and optimism should not be transformed into euphoria. There is still a long way to go. And there are well-founded reasons for caution.

Many Soviet Jewish activists remain pessimistic, and believe that the highly trumpeted new freedoms will be curtailed once Western press interest declines. Their hopes have been dashed too often for them to permit themselves to believe that the nightmare has, indeed, nearly ended.

Then there is the spectre of anti-Semitism. There are vicious anti-Semitic elements, such as Pamyat and other reactionaries, who are ready to use the Jewish issue as a vehicle with which to attack Gorbachev and perestroika. Ironically, the most important safeguard against such onslaughts would be for the government to fully restore to Soviet Jews their heritage and dignity.

But the greatest danger is the real possibility that the fledgling revival may be taken over by the old guard of servile Jews exemplified by the Anti-Zionist Committee (AZC). This group, whose concept of a Jewish revival is a return to the 1930s, when Jewish culture was Yiddish in form but anti-Jewish in content, remains influential. Its supporters are the contemporary counterparts of the Yevsektsia, those Jewish Communists who were the willing instruments of the party and zealously decimated organised Jewish life after the Revolution.

Although the agreement between the WJC and the Mikhoels Centre specifically excludes these anti-Zionist elements from the centre’s governing board, the new Shalom Centre is dominated by AZC members. It is no coincidence that the recent visit to London by the Shalom Theatre group took place under the auspices of PLO-enthusiast Vanessa Redgrave.

It is crucial that Western Jewish leaders understand that association with Jewish elements who supported the government during the pre-Gorbachev era is an act of betrayal against Soviet Jews committed to a Jewish national revival. The AZC cabal should be treated as pariahs. Paradoxically, today this group represents a greater threat to a genuine national Soviet Jewish revival than the government and the party.

UNFORTUNATELY, the Shalom Centre is not the only source of confusion in the West. There are questions surrounding some of the other new centres that one hopes will emerge in increasing numbers throughout the Soviet Union. While Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s project, the establishment of a yeshiva in Moscow, deserves wide support, caution is warranted in relation to the Moscow Synagogue Centre. The synagogue’s Rabbi Shayevich has demonstrated goodwill and a desire to work with constructive Western Jewish groups. But the Moscow Synagogue Centre, which is not yet functioning, has made no provisions for the participation of genuine Jewish religious activists such as those associated with the centrist Machanaim or Lubavitch organizations.

We should be wary of being dazzled by “establishment Judaism” in the Soviet Union. It will never have the capacity to spark a genuine religious or cultural revival. Our support for official Jewish centres should therefore be conditional upon the involvement of authentic Jewish activists and not those promoting tokenism or ersatz Judaism.

There is also a major struggle to be fought for the recognition or legitimation of Jewish cultural groups. Thus far we only have Soviet promises. But a few weeks ago unconfirmed rumours emanating from Soviet quarters were being circulated suggesting that a Jewish club in Moscow was to be granted official accreditation by the Moscow Municipality. Operated by Yuri Sokol, a member of the Communist Party, the group is not associated with the JCA. Neither is it linked with the AZC. It is to be hoped that if Sokol’s organization gets official recognition, this will lead to legitimation of the key Jewish activist organizations.

FOR ALL the excitement and promise surrounding the cultural revival, the emigration issue remains. Although many long-term refuseniks have been released, some are still being held as hostages. Until all are released, perestroika remains compromised and full normalisation of relations between the Jewish people and the Soviet Union is impossible.

There has admittedly been an increase in emigration, and the Soviet authorities have promised that a much more liberal system will be introduced in the next few months. If the Soviets implement these undertakings and the remaining refuseniks are freed, international Jewish strategies regarding Soviet Jewry will have to be dramatically reviewed.

The Soviet Jewry movement’s leadership must now face up to some unpleasant realities. The most important requirement is to recognise that aliya from the Soviet Union will, in all probability, remain limited.

This means an end to outmoded cliches. We should support the right of all Jews from any country, including the Soviet Union, to be free to live where they choose. But we should now also state clearly that it is not our national obligation to contribute materially to the transfer of Jews from one diaspora to another, especially when most of these Jews (as is their right) drop out on the Jewish people as well as Israel.

We are, of course, obliged to promote aliya from the Soviet Union in the same manner as we do in the West. We must, however, ensure that conditions in Israel are such that Soviet Jews will be encouraged to settle there rather than elsewhere. But, failing a successful aliya from the USSR, our principal objective must now be a revival of Jewish culture and religion in the second largest Jewish diaspora.

We will need new ground rules. We should recognise that Soviet Jewish activists are no longer part of an underground movement. We must treat their leaders with respect and consult them before acting, in the West, on their behalf. Wherever possible, Soviet Jewish leaders should be directly involved in the negotiations with Soviet authorities.

The key to the revival of Jewish culture rests on the quality of the educators and rabbis who will visit the Soviet Union as teachers. Here, Israel’s role becomes crucial. The language of Russian Jews is neither Hebrew nor Yiddish, but Russian. That is why former Soviet Jews now in Israel are essential to provide the manpower to reactivate Judaism. Yuli Edelstein showed in Moscow how former Soviet Jews can lead the way.

At the international level we face another problem. We must set aside the competition for headlines, call a halt to the warring among the various factions, the ego battles and the territorial battles. We must unite under the broad umbrella of the World Jewish Congress, because it is the only international body with global representation and extensive political experience on Soviet Jewry, appropriate liaison with other major Jewish educational and religious organizations, and a background of interaction with various Israeli agencies.

The sparks exist for a Jewish revival in the Soviet Union. The desire for authentic Judaism is present. What we now need is a recognition that, in addition to the cry “Let My People Go,” we must make what was only a catchcry – “Let My People Live” – become a new rallying call.

The writer is vice-president of the World Jewish Congress and president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.


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