Turning Point For Soviet Jewry

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THERE HAS recently been an atmosphere of panic verging on hysteria among wide sections of Soviet Jews, and this has snowballed over the past six weeks.

While the majority of Soviet Jews will remain in the Soviet Union, today there are hundreds of thousands, including many without any involvement in Jewish life, who are desperate to leave the Soviet Union and, with North America and Australia limiting immigration, will now gladly opt to settle in Israel. There has thus been a dramatic change in the situation which existed three months ago, when it was believed that Jews would prefer to remain in the Soviet Union unless the Israelis dramatically improved their migrant-absorption facilities.

There are two reasons for this change. First, the economic position has continued to deteriorate dramatically; and there is a real feeling of helplessness and desperation that, if perestroika and the Gorbachev reforms collapse, emigration remains the only remaining method of improving one’s economic status.

However, the most powerful driving force motivating the notion of emigration in Jews is the perception of a massive resurgence of popular anti-Semitism. One hears this from every Soviet Jew one encounters, irrespective of political or Jewish orientation.

THE UPSURGE OF “street” anti-Semitism, anti-Jewish pamphlets and public meetings is not restricted to organizations such as Pamyat. At a recent meeting of the Russian Writers’ Union – a reactionary chauvinistic group – Jews were openly accused of imposing the Bolshevik Revolution on Russia and of now emigrating to Israel with their riches. The speaker reminded the audience that it was the Jews who had murdered and “dismembered” both the tsar and his family. He predicted that the day of reckoning was coming for the Jews, and was applauded by sections of the audience.

The conservatives, some of the entrenched bureaucrats and other anti-Gorbachev elements are today harnessing anti-Semitism as a vehicle to attack the regime.

In a country in which anti-Semitism is endemic, and until recently was sponsored by the state, it is understandable that many Jews are frightened. Fears are constantly expressed that if Gorbachev is overthrown, Russia will revert to the days of the “Black Hundreds” and pogroms.

The situation is more acute because contemporary Soviet Jews have not experienced anti-Semitism in a violent and an uncontrolled manner. Furthermore, there is no real Soviet-Jewish tradition of self-defence against anti-Semitism; and although the main organs of the government-sponsored media are actively condemning anti-Semitism, as are most parliamentary and political personalities within the Gorbachev entourage, Jews are simply frightened, and want to leave before the last train departs.

THE REALITY is that unless there is a total breakdown in law and order, Soviet Jews are more secure today with a government that condemns anti-Semitism than they were with the former regime, which sponsored anti-Semitic campaigns at government level.

When I have asked leading Soviet officials why existing law is not employed against anti-Semites, they have pointed to the chaos prevailing in relation to far more fundamental national issues. It seems that the question of anti-Semitism is not a priority for the Supreme Soviet when there are Soviet republics demanding to secede from the USSR and when civil war prevails between some Soviet nationalities.

Paradoxically, in other respects the Jewish condition has changed dramatically for the better. Anti-Semitic discrimination has been and is being systematically eliminated in the universities and professions, and in job placement. While there are still anti-Semitic bureaucrats in positions of power who will always discriminate against Jews, in some universities there is even a form of inverse discrimination in favour of Jews, to demonstrate the contrast with the bad old days.

It is difficult to make an overall assessment. If, due to total social and economic collapse, the Gorbachev government were to be overthrown by the masses as a consequence of violent street riots, it would be very dangerous. In such circumstances one could indeed visualize pogroms and a reversion to the utilization of Jews as the traditional scapegoat.

However, I do not believe this will occur. Yet I recognize that there is always the possibility that it could happen; and in that context, the panic and fear prevailing among many Jews is understandable.

ALLOWING THAT hundreds and thousands of Jews will emigrate, primarily to Israel, which is today the only country offering them unlimited refuge, the vast majority of Soviet Jews will nevertheless remain in the USSR.

Hence the need to provide a sense of dignity and pride is crucial, not only to maintain Jewish identity, but also to give them the ideological backbone to withstand anti-Semitism.

It should, however, be noted that there have been important changes for the better in recent months.

The main purpose of my recent visit to the Soviet Union was to liaise on behalf of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) with Mikhail Chlenov and his associates in the Jewish Cultural Association (JCA), who were in the process of organizing the first genuine national Jewish conference on Soviet Jewry, to take place in Moscow next week.

This gathering will represent the resurrection of a national organization that will be able to speak on behalf of the vast majority of Soviet Jewish activists. It will be a gala occasion, with many Israeli and Diaspora organizations represented by observers.

When I was in Moscow, over a hundred organizations from over 60 different regions in the Soviet Union had already registered for the conference, and the numbers were growing daily.

I was actually present with Mikhail Chlenov when he was informed that the long struggle to obtain Soviet official recognition for the JCA had been achieved. This represented an extremely important step forward, which the WJC had repeatedly been urging the Soviet authorities to implement.

It is also proposed at that at next week’s historic meeting of the JCA, steps will be taken to affiliate, initially with observer status, to the WJC.

THE PRESENT official status of Judaism in the USSR is ambivalent. Mr. Harchev recently retired as chairman of the Committee for Religious Affairs and has been replaced by Mr. Khristoradnov, a former chairman of the USSR Supreme Soviet.

In a long meeting with Khristoradnov and his colleagues I concentrated primarily on two issues: the return of state-appropriated synagogues to Jewish communities; and official approval for the establishment of Jewish day schools. The responses from Khristoradnov were not reassuring; but it is too early to conclude that, in contrast to his predecessor, he is unsympathetic to Jewish interests.

The most important vehicle that will ultimately determine directions in religion will be the formal Supreme Soviet amendments to the offensive anti-religious Stalinist laws, which are theoretically still in place, even though they are ignored in practice.

THERE ARE currently three principal factions maintaining the spark of Judaism in the USSR.

There is, first, a national religious extension of the former refusenik movement headed by Zev Dashevsky, who should soon receive permission to emigrate. This group provides a number of students for the Steinsaltz Yeshiva and is strongly oriented towards Israel and the Jewish national movement. It operates a kindergarten and hopes to open a school. The group runs seminars, and its counterpart in Israel, Mahanayim, is doing extremely good work by sending a number of former members, now Israelis, to provide educational support. The Steinsaltz Yeshiva has between 70 and 100 young men studying Tora and general religious subjects – an extraordinary achievement.

Secondly there is the Lubavitch movement. This is desperately short of space and still concentrates its activities around the Marina Rosh Synagogue.

Then there is Rabbi Shayevich, who has moved a long way from his pre-glasnost position. At an extremely emotional gathering of the elderly congregation in the Arkhipova Street Synagogue, he introduced former Israeli Chief Rabbi Goren in Hebrew and spoke like a Zionist. Rabbi Goren himself created a precedent by intoning a prayer for the welfare of the Israeli army when he was called up to the read the Tora.

Rabbi Shayevich is co-operating actively with the Mahanayim group and Israel, and is willing to consider any kind of joint venture to promote Judaism from the synagogue premises. His new president, Mr. Federovich, is a marked improvement on his predecessor, Boris Gramm, doing everything he can to encourage a religious revival.

Shayevich will also be participating at the national conference. Yet, while I recognize that “Establishment Judaism” has an important role to play in the future of Judaism in the Soviet Union, a genuine revival of Jewish life is not likely to be initiated in these quarters. Nevertheless, by encouraging individual activist groups and by providing them with facilities, the Arkhipova Street Synagogue, in contrast to its former role as a KGB satellite, is becoming a genuine centre for Jewish activity.

ON THE CULTURAL level, one can only express despair at the fact that over the last 18 months, very little was contributed by Israel or world Jewry by way of sending out desperately needed Russian-speaking shlihim to act as teachers and educators.

After 18 months of total inertia, the Jewish Agency has now produced an important blueprint. We hope it will be implemented. I maintain that if there is a shortage of funds for Soviet Jewry, we should dispense with much of the Agency-funded activity in affluent areas such as North America, Europe or Australia, reduce the number of shlihim and the expenditure there, and concentrate instead on the Soviet Union, where the presence of even dozens of people might make an enormous difference to the survival of the second largest Jewish Diaspora.

THERE HAS recently been an enormous amount of confusion and misinformation regarding the status of Moscow’s Solomon Mikhoels Centre.

The WJC never visualized the Mikhoels Centre on its own as a major factor in a Jewish revival: it represented the first official Soviet recognition that Jewish culture was no longer prohibited. It was hoped that the Centre would serve as a basis for the establishment of similar centres throughout the Soviet Union, in addition to those operating in the Baltic Republics.

Mikhail Gluz was appointed the Centre’s director, and every single request to him from the WJC and Israel has been scrupulously honoured. The main problem was that Gluz and the JCA were not working in harmony.

In addition, the building itself required refurbishing, and funds were not available for this. So Gluz hired a number of other buildings and halls, which he has been using for general Jewish cultural activities as well as for teaching Hebrew and Yiddish.

The Mikhoels Centre organized the first officially recognized Israel Independence Day celebrations at its premises, with an address in Hebrew by Arye Levin, the head of the Israeli consular mission.There have also been concerts of Jewish music and lectures on Israel and other Jewish subjects.

However, the most outstanding achievement of the Centre has been the Hebrew ulpanim held under its auspices.

The WJC, in conjunction with an Israeli organization, arranged for leading Hebrew teachers to come to Moscow for six weeks as guests of the Centre. The results were spectacular: over 300 registrations for the first ulpan which ended recently. And I myself saw more than 400 people flocking to the Centre to register for the second intensive course.

Mikhail Gluz, who recently resigned from the Moscow Jewish Musical Theatre, is now working full-time as director of the Centre. He has undertaken to arrange rented accommodation for JCA functions, as well as for religious seminars operated by Zev Dashevsky.

Gluz also formally signed a document, in my presence, endorsing the platform and objectives of the Jewish movement and the JCA.

IT IS MY opinion that Jewish leaders throughout the world should follow the example of WJC President Edgar Bronfman and encourage Western leaders to give maximum support to the Gorbachev reforms.

As one privileged to be described in former times as a “Cold War warrior,” I am today convinced that if the dramatic revolution that Gorbachev has achieved in the Soviet Union were to be reversed, it would be a tragedy for the entire civilized world, not only for the Soviet Union and the Jewish people.

The writer is a vice president of the World Jewish Congress who recently visited Moscow.


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