Jerry GOODMAN, Founding Executive Director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, was interviewed by Aba & Ida TARATUTA
in New York on June 21, 2004.
Jerry Goodman: I became interested in Jewish political and social issues as the result of my mother. Born in Riga, she came to this country before the war, and met my father, an emigrant from Poland. As far back as we can trace the family name was Frost. Virtually her entire family, including her parents, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephew, were killed in the Shoah. Only her youngest brother Matis, or Matisyahu, survived, because he was in a German labor camp in Latvia. He has since emigrated to Israel, with his family.
When I was still at school I went to the Soviet Union to establish contact with my uncle, who was then living in Riga. Although he had not been an activist, he was one of those young Jews who began weekly visits to the nearby ‘Rumbali’ forest, to help restore the mass graves where thousands of Jews were buried, including our extended family. You might recall that among that group were many activists who were, in fact, staunch Zionists.
The experience of my visit ineluctably led me to begin to take courses on Russian and Soviet history and politics, although my field of study was in Government and Politics, with a minor in the Middle East. After graduating with my BA I went on to graduate school to get a degree in Political Sociology. I was doing research for a parallel job at the Foreign Policy Association when I met a staff member at the American Jewish Committee. He, in turn, introduced me to the head of their Foreign Affairs Department, who offered me a job. Although I had expected to finish graduate studies for a PhD, it was an interesting and challenging offer, which I could not refuse.
Furthermore, there was the experience of my mother’s lamentations for her lost family, as well as the early experience of meeting my uncle in the Soviet Union.
I was appointed the Director for European Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, and served as their specialist on Communism and Eastern Europe, as well as Western Europe, including Nazism.
Aba Taratuta: It's close, i.e. Communism and Nazism.
J.G.: Yes, very close. It's the classic Black / Red combination, and it seemed logical for the two to be in my jurisdiction. In any event the American Jewish Committee had a long history of being involved with Soviet affairs. They had published some of the earliest studies on Jews, well before the rest of the Jewish community showed serious interest.
In the course of that work the Committee became a major organizer of the first conference of Jewish organizations to meet together to share a concern for Soviet Jews. This was in Washington, D.C. in April, 1964. At about the same time, students were beginning to organize in New York City. Jacob Birnbaum and Glenn Richter were central to this effort.
Following the Washington meeting, I was asked to serve as co-coordinator of what was a limited but ongoing program of public and private activities. It was not yet a free standing or independent position. With time provided by the AJC it did mean helping coordinate the efforts of 28 national Jewish organizations who had agreed to work together in what was called the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry (AJCSJ). Most of the group were not accustomed to working together in a sustained manner, which caused an awkward and often contentious launching. Having said that, this loose coalition soon began to carry out more and more activities as a community.
For example we organized a week-long Eternal Light Vigil in Washington, which I helped organize with Rabbi Richard Hirsch, the director of the UAHC’s Religious Action Center. We organized a national rally and march, when Leonid Brezhnev came to Washington. There were periodic demonstrations at the Soviet consulate in New York City, organized by the local community as part of the AJCSJ.
By the late 60’s we had understood that the two centers for activism would be in Washington, where our Government and the Congress sat, and where the Soviet embassy was located, and New York City, the heart of the Jewish world and the national media.
Some critics maintain that we did not do enough, and should have mounted daily events. Even if such a program had been logistically possible, in the closed Soviet society of that era, and I refer to the early and mid-60’s, there were no Jewish activists with whom we had regular contact. The result is that we did not know if there was anybody listening to us, and certainly nobody who could motivate us.
It was really in the late 60’s, and especially after the First Leningrad Trial in December 1970, that Jewish activists began to surface and establish more open links with people in this country. The impact of that trial, and the ensuing arrests of young Jews throughout the Soviet Union, as well as other signs of Jewish protest from Georgia, Latvia, Russia, etc., prompted the Jewish community to reconstitute the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry and create the National conference on Soviet Jewry.
The New York representative of the Prime Minister’s special office, called the Lishkat HaKesher or Nativ, pushed for the strengthened NCSJ. I took what I thought would be a two-year leave of absence from the American Jewish Committee to organize the nascent coalition as its first Executive Director. At that point in time, no one knew how long the campaign would last. As we know, it was a long campaign, and I remained the executive head of the National Conference for seventeen (17) years.
In hindsight my studies, my Jewish background, and my family history all seemed to have conspired to bring me to that point where serving with NCSJ was the most logical thing that could have happened. It was probably the most challenging and meaningful part of my life, other than family.
But, it was not an easy task. We had invited the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ), which had been campaigning for years along side the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry, to join the National Conference. They accepted.
No, the NCSJ’s leadership did not always agree with all the activities undertaken by the SSSJ, and I remember discussions with colleagues and recognizing that as activist students they were not going to do everything the way we might want. But it was better to have them within the tent rather than operating outside the mainstream.
Another group had developed at about the same time – the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews. Although we invited them to join the NCSJ, they declined and preferred to remain totally independent. My guess is that they were afraid they would lose their reputation as an aggressive, grassroots organization and, thus, lose their identity.
But every major Jewish organization, from left to right, from religious to non religious, Zionist to non-Zionist, joined the National. Conference on Soviet Jewry at that time. By the time I left, fifty-four (54) organizations were in this broad based coalition, which represented the Jewish community from California to New York. Because of this massive construct the Natl. Conf. was able to carry out an extensive, ongoing variety of activities.
[A.T. inquires about whether the branches, or NCSJ over all couldn't do more, and JG says, that we had to mobilize a very extensive network]
We had a network of dozens of national Jewish organizations, such as American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, B'nai B'rith, ADL, Zionist Organization of America, and Hadassah, as well as the synagogue groups - Conservative, Orthodox, Reform. We had to take all the different viewpoints into consideration and work out a consensus. We couldn't merely plunge ahead. Of course we were staffed, and we were funded, although we never had adequate funding and always had to raise money.
After a number of years, member organizations began to trust our leadership – both the lay leadership and the professional leadership we provided. As a result there was less need to go back all the time to seek permission, and in effect we became the Soviet Jewry arm of the Jewish community, which is what we were supposed to be. But it took a while. Eventually, most of the Jewish organizations limited their own Soviet Jewry programs and turned them over, basically, to NCSJ. Over time we became the voice for the organized Jewish community.
We opened an office in Washington, a move that a lot of organizations initially opposed. I realized, and the leadership realized, that demonstrations are good, petitions are good, but in the end political decisions would change the Soviet Jewish experience. We had to be where the White House and the Congress would be working.
Through our Washington office the idea of the “Helsinki Commission,” the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), was created. In fact, some of the people who worked for the Natl. Conf., joined the staff of the Helsinki Commission. We always had a very good working relationship with that group, and with other parts of the Congress and the Administration, primarily the NSC and the State Department.
What were we able to do? That which others necessarily could not
Generally, we had better information concerning refuseniks than the State Department, and more reliable. When I say reliable, it’s important because sometimes, there would be false information available. I’ll never forget when a local group came to us and said they had reports of a Jewish man who had been arrested. We said that we had to check. We don’t know if this person is a refusenik or not. We’d never heard of him. He was in one of the provincial cities. It turns out that he was actually a criminal. The fact that he was a Jew did not make him a Zionist. Certainly, he was not a refusenik.
I recently spoke on the subject of Soviet Jewry and said that, at the height of activism and the repression of Jewish activists, there were people who wanted to plunge ahead. But plunging ahead, as we have now learned in Iraq (and I refer to the American toppling of Saddam Hussein) is not always the best tactic. Sometimes you have to pause. You have to analyze. Then you act. As a result we were occasionally accused of being too slow. I am proud of the fact that our staff, people like Myrna Shinbaum, did the research, did the checking. They were always solid, and when Secretary of State George Shultz had a question, he could turn to us. If we gave him an answer, he would feel comfortable using it. I would say that 99% of the time we were on target. That is the responsibility we had. We spoke for the Jewish community.
You asked about the JDL? For one brief moment in time the Jewish Defense League played a limited, but useful role. Most of my colleagues disagree with me. I understand why. The JDL, however, did provoke the Russians and got to the newspapers the way other did not, but in the end the Jewish Defense League destroyed itself.
They began to fight the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry for media attention. They were certainly fighting the NCSJ. They forgot their enemy. They were fighting Jews instead of Moscow. Once, when I was away planning an international conference in Brussels, the JDL broke into our office. Our staff was petrified. I knew [what was happening] because we were on the telephone. The JDL members went through the files. They scattered papers on the floor. We called the police and they came to arrest the JDL people. I was asked if we should prosecute, and I agreed because the JDL would never learn not to act against Jews again unless we pressed charges. They were found guilty, and for a year they were forbidden to come anywhere near our office. They never bothered us again
Basically, the JDL did more harm than good.
Yes, the SSSJ which was militant, sometimes disagreed with us. They, however, did much good.
The National Conference became more aggressive and more militant over time. Better information helped, as did travelers. People in Moscow and Leningrad began to know us, even if they did not understand the organization structure in this country.
We got to know the activists – the refuseniks. They got to know us, and we developed more confidence in what we were doing. We understood that we were playing with other lives, and not to undertake something that could jeopardize people in the Soviet Union. If we made a mistake, and because of that mistake a person went to the gulag – well how could we live with that?
I recall a New York Times editorial that said something to the effect that 'there is nothing like the Establishment, when it is aroused,' and I say that with pride. That’s what happened to us in regard to the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the Trade Reform Act. We were certainly the leaders in the struggle to pass Jackson-Vanik. Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson came to the Natl. Conf. shortly after a so-called 'Ransom Tax, ' or 'Education Tax,’ was introduced to restrict Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union.
I had already been working with Richard Perle, Morrie Amitay and Mark Talisman, congressional staff members, to find ways to link economic relations with the Soviet Union to the Jewish issue.
When the “Education Tax” was imposed by Soviet authorities, everything exploded. We convened an emergency nationwide leadership meeting in September of l972. I got a call from Jackson's office, asking whether the Senator could address our meeting. On the spot Richie Maass, then NCSJ Chairman, and I agreed.
Jackson came to and placed before NCSJ his proposal to link emigration to trade. We debated all night as to whether to support it or not. For the Jewish community this would have been a radical move. It meant that we would be opposing president
In the end, the majority voted to support the proposal, which became the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to U.S. trade laws. It was historic, both from the point of view of the Congress and from the point of view of the Jewish community. It was in fact an historic step forward, in terms of the community’s maturation.
During the two year battle there were times when pressure was applied by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, or by others in the Nixon Administration, including threats concerning Israel. I'll never forget Nechamia Levanon, the Prime Minister’s advisor on Soviet Jewish Affairs, flying over to meet with us, when he said: 'The Prime Minister said to go ahead. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment is the right way to go. Israel will take care of itself.' That is exactly what happened. We plunged ahead because we felt comfortable that it would not harm Israel.
Recently some of us got together for what has been described as the fortieth (40th) anniversary of the Soviet Jewry movement in America. Well, I was glad to be there. But the truth is that you cannot really pinpoint when the movement started. It evolved. For example, before the NCSJ, the UCSJ and the SSSJ there was a project run by Moshe Decter, called Jewish Minorities Research, which was really created by 'Lishkat ha'Kesher.' It did some very useful things; it brought together intellectuals, scientists and academicians, and they help publicize the situation.
Remember – this was before there was a fighting movement in the Soviet Union that we knew about. So we used whatever research could be done here, and whatever information one could get from 'Lishkat ha'Kesher' which, among other things, had access to Soviet newspapers. This helped provide valuable information. Whatever contacts their own diplomats had, at least until l967, also helped. But it was not yet an on-going public advocacy program.
After l964, when the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry was created, there were ad hoc activities. Should there have been more? Possibly, but we were operating in a void. I remember when the Natl. Conference came to Philadelphia, where the U.S. Declaration of Independence was signed and where America had found its freedom. We used the same 18th Century Liberty Hall because of the symbolism. We created a document with eighteen (18) points for Soviet Jews, that dealt with religion, culture, education, anti-Semitic propaganda, and emigration. We did not really know at the point what Soviet Jews themselves wanted. We certainly took it for granted that they wanted an end to anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic propaganda. They wanted access to schools. They wanted to be able to build synagogues and teach Jewish life.
Within a few years that changed and we knew that the activists wanted to leave for Israel. Certainly, after the First Leningrad trial in 1970, it was clear. That really helped explode the issue unto the American scene. While the people who tried to escape to Sweden and then on to Israel probably did not realize what they were doing, they helped open the issue for the rest of the world. I am sure that was not on their mind.
I've spoken to former Prisoner of Zion Hillel Butman and some of the others involved in that 1970 plot. They made their decision based on a belief that any normal process for aliyah to Israel was impossible. I know that. But they also felt they were making a statement. I do not think they understood how broad that statement would be with respect to their arrests, and the arrests of additional young Jews throughout the country that followed. The Soviets rounded up different groups that had been functioning that we did not even know existed. Ironically, as a result we had a better understanding of the extensive network of young activists who were studying Hebrew and planning to go to Israel.
The nationwide arrests in severed cities actually focused people in the West so they could understand that the Soviet Union was undertaking a massive campaign against Jewish activists. There had to be a stronger response in the West.
Well, I still believe that the advocacy campaign was an evolutionary process. Some people in Israel and in this country were concerned with Soviet Jewry back in the l950s. When Shaul Avigur in Israel began to think about it and created links in the Soviet Union - that means people were planning. People understood. Although the Jewish Labor Committee and the American Jewish Committee began to publish information about Soviet Jews, in the l950s and l960s, it took another decade for everything to come together.
Unfortunately, young Soviet Jews had to pay the price. When Elie Wiesel went to the Soviet Union in l965 and returned to write The Jews of Silence, he was talking about Soviet Jews who were still silent, because of fear of KGB terror.
When Soviet Jews began to organize in the late 60’s there was a better response. Following the First Leningrad Trial, I remember the leadership meeting held in Washington. Hundreds gathered from across the country. A delegation went to visit President Nixon, to seek his intervention. We waited for the delegation to come back with the answer. We know that Nixon then intervened. For example, Edward Kuznetsov and Mark Dimshitz had their death sentences commuted to fifteen (15) years.
The movement gained steam. We had to learn how to use the political process, much more dramatically than we had ever done. We had to learn to work with the Congress – on a broad range of legislation. We created new public relations devices. Through our Washington office, we created a Congressional wives group to generate public attention. In addition they could do things that their spouses could not. Mrs. Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of Senator John Kerry, then married to Republican Senator John Heinz, who was killed in an accident, was one of the key member of Congressional Wives for Soviet Jewry. Mrs. Helen Jackson (wife of Sen. Jackson) was one of the co-chair people.
We were able to do creative things in order to get the issue of Soviet Jewry before the public, before the media and in front of our political leaders.
It was a learning experience. And we learned. We also had good people – volunteers- advising us. I will never forget a prize-winning poster we created in the early days. It carried a simple message. It showed the Kremlin wall, in black, and on the wall it said: “It’s a tough place to live; it's a tough place to leave." The message got through. We were pleased. We had volunteers coming in, doctors, public relations people, teachers who were prepared to go to the Soviet Union when the unofficial study groups were functioning, Scientists who were prepared to go and work with Jewish scientists, fired from their jobs.
Our Jewish program in the Soviet Union, headed by Rabbi David Hill, sent couples with Kosher products who would teach how to light candles for Shabbat, or how to celebrate a holiday. Of course, others were doing it too, such as CHABAD, who also sent young couples. This form of activism, not meant for public consumption, marked a significant change in how we could function. With lists of contacts, and Moscow prepared to accept tourists and much needed dollars, we sent travelers who helped us create a bridge to and from activists.
It was an important time in the American Jewish communal experience. The one issue that united American Jewry, even with the divisions among different groups, was the Soviet Jewry movement. There were people on the right and people on the left. We had students, the elderly, business people, political people. They came for different reasons. Some had been survivors of the Shoah. Some were student activists who had been involved in the Civil Rights movement and were taking of their energy to deal with Jewish issues. Many of those young people became the backbone of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry.
Some of the tactics that the Civil Rights movement developed became part of our own movement. Our skill was to apply them in a different way. Some in our leadership opposed such actions. My answer was if students want to do it, let them do it, and if some adults then join them and want to do it, let them do it.
The Washington Jewish community held a daily vigil across the street from the Soviet Embassy. I was pleased to have participated in some of them. The vigil included labor leaders, and educators. It became a real grass-roots undertaking.
I was asked recently if there is any way we can recreate that spirit for Israel? I said that I don't think so. Israel is a state, with an army. What we had then, even if this sounds simplistic, were “the good guys”, the Hebrew teachers and Aliya activists, and “the bad guys”, the KGB and the repressive Soviet Empire. While it demanded organizing and planning we could mobilize people for those struggling for basic rights. We were able to attract hundreds of thousands of Jews, and many non-Jews, for such a cause. That's why we could get sympathetic Christians involved. Some of this might have been guilt about the Shoah. Jews in the Soviet Union were being forced to give up their identities. If you remember that 6 million Jews had been destroyed only a few years earlier, another three (3) million being forced to give up who they were was too much for many concerned people to absorb.
People in Western Europe, not known to be anti-Soviet, joined in. That's why we could organize two (2) global conferences in Brussels, and unify the Jewish community in this country like no other issue. I do not want to minimize the differences. Nevertheless, when we brought a quarter million (250,000) people to Washington in December l987, for the first summit meeting between Mikhail Gorbachev and Pres. Ronald Reagan in this country, we had the Union of Councils with us, as well as the Student Struggle. We had non-affiliated people. We had synagogues. There were men, women and children from all aspects of Jewish and non-Jewish life. That event was probably the peak of the Soviet Jewry advocacy movement.
Within a year or two, things began to loosen up. Emigration increased. While Mikhail Gorbachev allowed certain things to move slowly, Boris Yeltsin caused it to happen more quickly. Even as we maintained concern about Jews in the Soviet Union, the arrests stopped. State anti-Semitism stopped. The gates opened. Jewish communal life was able to make a comeback. It's a different era now. Those who participated in the movement, who still have memories, understand that they were part of an historic experience. I am talking about Jews in the Soviet Union as well as Jews in the advocacy movement in the West.
A.T.: What do you think about your connection with 'Lishkat ha'Kesher' and the State of Israel? What about their participation – did they help you?
J.G.: I think the 'Lishkat ha'Kesher,' which was the special office created by the Prime Minister to run the operation in the Soviet Union, was incredibly helpful. Did they make mistakes? Probably. They were human. But over all, I think they were an important asset. Look – whoever ran that office, at different times with different people, came with the blessings of the Prime Minister. That meant that when they came to America to meet with American Jewish leadership and to convince them to become more aggressive in the campaign, they came as representatives of the Prime Minister. American Jewish leaders could believe that the government of Israel was behind the effort, and that was important.
As an example, during the Yom Kippur War, when the Soviet Jewry advocacy movement had already been organized and was becoming aggressive, Secretary of State Kissinger put pressure on the Jewish community and said that support for the Jackson-Vanik Amendment could hurt Israel. The 'Lishkat ha'Kesher' came and said, 'you do what you have to do for Soviet Jews. Let Israel take care of itself.' That was an important message.
In addition, there was invaluable information we got from the 'Lishka,' that we could not have gotten on our own, because they were still screening newspapers and working with visitors to the Soviet Union from many countries. Most often lists of Refuseniks came about through their intervention, and were then given to us. We reprocessed them and were able to submit those lists to our government and were given to Soviet authorities. But really, those lists came from the 'Lishka,' through their own network.
Think about the circle. The lists of names were pulled together by refuseniks in the Soviet Union. Sometimes they were given to visitors, but they certainly were given to people who had contacts with the 'Lishka.' The 'Lishkat ha'kesher' gave them to us. We re-typed them, and made sure they were free of inconsistencies. We then gave them to the State Department. They gave them to the Russians. They ended up in Moscow where they probably began, but clearly in a different mode.
There were times when people in the leadership, under pressure from the Nixon Administration, waivered. They were unclear about support for the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. As I mentioned, when Nechamia Levanon, who headed the 'Lishkat ha'kesher' at the time, came here to meet with Jewish leadership, it was to encourage them to stand and hold fast on Jackson-Vanik Amendment, that it would not hurt Israel. And if it did, he said, 'we'll take care of our own.'
I would say that over-all the 'Lishka' was very helpful and very important. I know they have been criticized by some groups and some people in the Jewish community and in Israel. I think the negative criticism is wrong. I would say that over-all, their involvement on behalf of Soviet Jews was positive.
I know they were criticized by the people who tried to steal the airplane in 1970 and fly out of the Soviet Union. Well, it turns out historically that the 'Lishka' was right, when they maintained the plan would fail. It did. They thought the planners might have been infiltrated by spies. They were. Having said that the participants, who were arrested and sentenced to the gulag, certainly got their message across to the West.
A.T.: Is it right that the 'Lishka' policy was silence, that Israel did not openly support Soviet Jews? And more than that Israel even tried to stop the activism of American Jews? Is that right?
J.G.: Not right. I speak from the experience at the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. It was created because of Israeli support. While it might have happened anyway, there is no question that they pushed Jewish leadership to set aside money and create the Natl. Conf. on Soviet Jewry. It was the 'Lishka' that suggested I become the first director and organize the Natl. Conf. They never asked us to be quiet, although they might have questioned one activity we might have planned over another.
On the contrary, they came and encouraged more demonstrations. They made it easier when we were having demonstrations in New York or elsewhere, to bring ex-refuseniks from Israel to speak. Clearly, they were encouraging public activities.
I am sure that there were individuals and groups here who thought that the 'Lishka' was not doing enough. Probably true. One could argue that none of us did enough. Maybe we could have done more, maybe we should have done more. History will tell.
One of the things I am pleased about is being pulled back into the Soviet Jewry movement, through the creation of an archive, similar to the one that you, Aba Taratuta, are creating. It will be an archive in New York of what the American advocacy movement was like. Some day as many documents as we can gather will be in one place. There are books now being written on the advocacy movement, and some doctoral dissertations. I hope these will be objective and factual in what they have to say about what people did or did not do and why, as well as where we succeeded and where we failed.
Sometimes we had major disagreements within our own network. Both of you Ida & Aba Taratuta know how many fights took place in the Soviet Union among activists. We were no different. You had people who wanted to join the dissident movement in Moscow, and wanted to become part of the Human Rights network. There were others who said that it's a mistake and it will hurt the aliyah movement. The point is, within any movement I have studied, there have always been differences. I don't mean to defend all of the activities undertaken by the Natl. Conference, but at the moment you are involved in something, you have to decide when and how to act. And the decisions were not always easy. Do we have enough money for a certain activity? Do we have enough support for a certain activity? What is the potential for hurting Jews in the Soviet Union? Would an action have a negative or a positive impact?
No, it was not easy.
A.T.: What is your opinion about Meir Kahane?
J.G.: I met him briefly. As I have already mentioned at a certain time in history the Jewish Defense League did help people focus more on Soviet Jewry. But they also alienated many Jews and non-Jews. If the whole Soviet Jewry movement lasted one hour, the positive impact of the JDL was about ten (10) seconds. They very quickly lost their ability to analyze the issues and to think intelligently. They began to attack other Jews in this country for not doing enough. They began doing silly and sometimes stupid, and on occasion dangerous, things. As a result of planting a bomb a young Orthodox Jewish girl was killed in the office of impressario Sol Hurok, when the JDL fought against cultural contact between the two countries. Sol Hurok was promoting them.
By the way, we wanted cultural contacts because that gave us an address to focus public and media attention, if used creatively and dramatically. If the Bolshoi came, we could protest. If the Bolshoi did not come, we had no address. So it was useful to have Soviet exchanges and to create programs using their presence. The JDL wanted isolation. We thought that was wrong. I think we were right. By the time of the Hurok incident the JDL had long since gone over the edge. Over-all what the JDL did was more harmful than helpful.
Transcripted by Donna Wosk (Israel)