Jerusalem & Babylon.
Gleaning more from the struggle for Soviet Jewry

By Anshel Pfeffer

The 40th anniversary of the beginning of the international struggle for Soviet Jewry is being celebrated with much pomp and circumstance. Festivities range from gala evenings in Israel, the United States and elsewhere, to a fascinating exhibition at the Diaspora Museum and another range of events, to a Jewish film festival and a Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball game (how this can help anyone celebrate anything totally escapes me.)

This is all as it should be, as the campaign to liberate the Jews of Silence was indeed a unique example of a brave group of men and women fighting the world's most powerful repressive regime, both for their human rights and their right to a Jewish identity; as such, the movement inspired millions - and not only Jews - around the world.

You don't have to agree with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's rather sweeping historical judgment this week to feel the enormity of their challenge: "The victory that was achieved at the end of the struggle for Soviet Jewry lead not only to the opening of the gates; everyone knows it also contributed in a significant way to the toppling of the Soviet regime, which changed the whole world."

Slow on the uptake

But there is a discordant note in this festival. Ask the organizers what makes this battle unique among all those the Jewish people fought, and the answer you invariably get is that this was the first time the entire Jewish people united around a common cause, to liberate their brothers and sisters.

In many ways, this campaign was a rare convergence of streams, but it would do no harm to remember that, at least in the early days, not all joined the fight automatically. I'm not talking about the usual shirkers you can all imagine without me naming names; I mean the Government of Israel.

Obviously, to commemorate 40 years now requires the use of a rather artificial date. It's true that in the aftermath of the Six Day War there was a wider awakening among the younger Jewish generation throughout Russia and its subjugated republics, which resonated with their counterparts around the world. But the struggle began long before, from the early 1920s as a cautious estimate.

In 1952, Nativ was set up as a secret government agency aimed at working with the Jews of the Soviet Union and keeping alive their Jewish identity along with their connection to Israel. A wide range of other Jewish organizations were active there from the early days of Stalin's terror onward. But even accepting that in 1967, a new, more public phase of the struggle began, it still took quite a while for the government to take part.

Quiet diplomacy

Arie "Lova" Eliav - the veteran Labor politician and educator, the First Secretary at the embassy in Moscow from 1958-1960 and later the head of Nativ operations in Russia - recalls how "the official government wouldn't lend its name to the cause at the beginning. The view was that it would seriously damage ties with the Soviets, and that quiet diplomacy was better."

This position didn't change after 1967 and, despite the USSR severing diplomatic ties, the government still hoped to reestablish links. Prime ministers Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir stuck to a low-profile policy.

"In Nativ, we were the only radicals, wanting to make the case out in the open," Eliav said. "But the government stuck to their line and were interested mainly in the chances of reopening the embassy. Naturally, it caused a great deal of friction with various Jewish organizations."

Bobby Brown, a former advisor on Diaspora affairs to the prime minister and a long-time activist on behalf of Soviet Jewry, remembers how from the mid sixties onward, representatives from the Israeli Consulate in New York tried to dissuade him and his friends in the Beitar movement from doing too much.

"In one case, they told us that two dissidents we were helping were actually KGB agents. Another time, we were told immigration from the Soviet Union to Israel wouldn't be a good thing because it would include provocateurs and criminal types. Whenever we asked the consulate to send a speaker to a demonstration, they ignored our request."

20/20 hindsight

This is a classic case of the clash between the perceived interests of the state of Israel and those of the wider Jewish community. In retrospect, it seems clear only an open, in-your-face challenge to the Soviet leadership had any chance of achieving something. It took almost a decade, and a new, more U.S.-aligned Israeli leadership in Yitzhak Rabin's first term as prime minister, to come to the realization that diplomatic ties weren't going to be renewed so quickly. The struggle taking place in Moscow and Leningrad had captured the interest of a whole generation of young Jews.

Now, it seems as if the Eshkol and Meir governments were wrong, but was it really so clear-cut then? If there was a chance of a thaw with the politburo or a USSR shift from its total support for the Arab states, would the strategic benefits not have justified keeping quiet on the repression of Jews?

Behind closed doors

Arguments and conflicts of interest between Israel and the Jewish world are usually kept beneath the surface. There might be bitter divisions over questions such as whether to promote more immigration, at the price of depleting local communities, or whether or not to allow the Falashmura in. Debates may address how best to deal with the Iranian threat and Jerusalem's future borders, but until now, the established practice has been to have these arguments behind closed doors.

The problem is, these discussions shouldn't be the preserve of a small group of politicians; public scrutiny, with all its inevitable pressure, is crucial. The government was forced to take a real stand in the 1970s, only after young activists within the Soviet Union went public - at an enormous risk, in many cases paying with their freedom - to put their cause firmly on the international agenda. Therein lies the message on this anniversary.