When David Havkin was 14, his father bought him an Agfa camera; that was in Moscow, during the Second World War. Film was not expensive, and the chemicals and paper needed to develop photographs were obtainable. Three years after the end of the war, Israel's ambassador to Moscow, Golda Meir, arrived. Some time after her arrival she was scheduled to visit the city's Great Synagogue, an event that stirred great excitement among the Jewish population. However, Havkin's father did not tell him about it, fearing the youngster would get into trouble. He went anyway. With his camera, Havkin climbed a brick wall by the synagogue and captured one of the most famous images in the country's history: Meir, wearing a luxurious hat, being mobbed by hundreds of thrilled Jews.
Havkin returned home without telling his father that he had disobeyed him. He developed the photograph, prepared a package of prints and went to the Great Synagogue. There, he gave the package to one of the ever-present peddlers of tefillin (phylacteries) and tallitot (fringed prayer shawls), who added it to his wares. One day, Havkin's father came home from the synagogue and showed his son a photograph he had purchased there clandestinely. Havkin did not dare tell his father that he was the photographer, revealing the secret only years later, when the authorities arrested him for engaging in prohibited Jewish-Zionist activity. Havkin was permitted to immigrate to Israel in 1969. He is now a retired engineer of 78, living in Jerusalem. The photograph he took 60 years ago is now on display at Beth Hatefutsoth (Museum of the Jewish Diaspora) in Tel Aviv, as part of an exhibition on the Jewish national movement in the USSR from 1967 to 1989.
The exhibition is worth a visit. It reflects much courage in the face of a despotic regime: People gathered, learned Hebrew, listened to the BBC and the Voice of Israel, exchanged banned books, held secret contacts with the United States, Israel and other countries, and on some occasions even held protest vigils and demonstrations. Primarily, the exhibition presents the story of one generation of a struggle that had begun many years earlier - the generation that came out of the closet in the wake of the Six-Day War.
Many of the heroes of that generation are behind the new exhibition. From this point of view, there is an element of the autobiographical in it, recalling the first exhibitions about the Holocaust: The story of the Jews is completely separated from its political context. Just as many years passed before Israelis began to take an interest in the history of Nazi Germany, so there is no reference to the Soviet side of the story in the Beit Hatefutsoth exhibition. This tendency is also marked in the catalogue, which was edited by the exhibition's curator, Rachel Schnold.
The catalogue, in Hebrew and English, is a splendid volume that broadens our knowledge of the events and contains an intriguing article by Michael Beizer. However, the persecution of the Jews is portrayed as a self-evident phenomenon, as though there were no need to expose and analyze its roots and trace its evolution in the Soviet corridors of power. The history of the Jewish struggle in the Soviet Union, and in particular the influence of outside public pressure, can be a useful guide for fighting totalitarian regimes and defending human rights in general. Concomitantly, no consideration is given to the part played by the Jews' struggle in the collapse of the Communist regime.
Israel's role in the struggle also merits further research. Thousands of Jews in the Soviet Union received fictitious requests for family unification from Israel; large numbers of Israelis, mainly from kibbutzim, volunteered their addresses for this purpose. A few of these forms are on display in the exhibition alongside small books of Psalms and a lighter that was smuggled into the country from Israel: it plays "Hatikva." Israel established a secret organization, Nativ, but it is not clear whether it did enough; there were fascinating arguments over this issue, against the background of the feeling that the Zionist movement failed in the Holocaust.
It was also a highly political debate: readiness to do something for Soviet Jewry was considered a sign of Zionist patriotism. At the same time, there were quite a few hitchhikers who used the struggle to promote other causes, such as Meir Kahane and the knights of the Cold War. The catalogue is silent on this.
Germany over Israel. This mass "dropping out" was the most severe blow suffered by the Zionist movement since the Holocaust. Mass immigration to Israel began only after the United States imposed tougher restrictions on the entry of Jews, in response to Israel's request. This aspect of the story could serve as a springboard for discussing the extent to which the Jews of the Soviet Union were actually Zionists, and how successful were the underground efforts of Nativ. All this barely rates a mention in the exhibition.
In contrast to the classic Beit Hatefutsoth exhibition, there is also no discussion about which Jews made the right decision, from their point of view: those who settled in Israel, those who immigrated to America or Germany, or those who remained in the Soviet Union until its fall. For example, if the oligarch Leonid Nevzlin had left long ago, he would probably not be so rich today. Naturally, he might also not be suspected of murder, and it's doubtful he would have financed Beit Hatefutsoth.
We are very pleased to read reviews on the exhibition, in which we invested not a small amount of effort and materials which we succeeded in gathering from private collections of the Prisoners of Zion, refuseniks and Aliyah activists who took part in that very struggle to which the exhibition is devoted. So we appreciate the kind words of praise Tom Segev wrote about it.
Nevertheless we feel ourselves obliged to comment on some of the points the author made.
Tom Segev wrote that “there is no reference to the Soviet side of the story in the Beit Hatefutsoth exhibition. This tendency is also marked in the catalogue…”.
In another place he argues that “The history of the Jewish struggle in the Soviet Union, and in particular the influence of outside public pressure, can be a useful guide for fighting totalitarian regimes and defending human rights in general. Concomitantly, no consideration is given to the part played by the Jews' struggle in the collapse of the Communist regime.”
His statement “… there were quite a few hitchhikers who used the struggle to promote other causes, such as Meir Kahane and the knights of the Cold War. The catalogue is silent on this.” seems to us as wholly unjust and misleading.
Finally, speaking about “mass ’dropping out’” regarding those Soviet Jews who in the middle of 1970s chose the USA (and in the 1990s Germany) instead of Israel, he reproached the exhibition with “All this barely rates a mention in the exhibition.”
It seems to us that Tom Segev – led maybe by some of his political preferences - in fact missed the point wholly. It can be judged in particular by the fact that he put the word "hitchhikers" in the title of his article as if it was one of the main features of the movement. It was certainly not.
A famous 19th century Russian author of aphorisms Kozma Prutkov wrote in one of his short wise dictums: “It is impossible to embrace the unembraceable”. We know who Meir Kahane was – though we don’t accept everything he stood for. We don’t accept the expression “the knights of the Cold War” in relation to Jews in the Soviet Union as in other countries. And we know all about “dropping out” - no less than Tom Segev. However, we intentionally and deliberately focused our efforts, when designing the concept of the exhibition, on the struggle of the Zionists among the Soviet Jewry for their – those Zionists –aliyah to Israel, in the first place, and secondly for the possibility to live as Jews in the Soviet Union. Regarding the other things – “The Soviet side of the story”, “dropping out”, etc. – see Kozma Prutkov’s dictum above.
There is no need for discussion about “the extent to which the Jews of the Soviet Union were actually Zionists” because everybody knows perfectly well that the majority of Soviet Jews weren’t Zionists, and that most of the true Zionists among the Soviet Jews went to Israel in the beginning of 1970s, when Soviet authorities opened a small door for them in the Iron Curtain. Of course refuseniks and prisoners of Zion had to wait to the end of 1980s. It is worth noting that the percentage of those among those Zionists who “dropped out” or later emigrated from Israel was very small; we don’t know exact figures but we are sure that the “neshira” among those Zionists from the Soviet Union is much, much less than that of native born Israelis or those who came to Israel earlier from other countries.
The exhibition is devoted to those Zionists who came to Israel, and to their success.
Deputy Executive Director, Association Remember and Save,
Editor and webmaster of the site http://www.soviet-jews-exodus.com