In February a conference of 750 Jewish leaders in Belgium considered the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union. Here is a dual report by two of our correspondents tracing the important historical reasons for today's problems and what the outcome might be in the future.
Brussels, Belgium THE ETERNAL HOPE and determination of the Jewish people was again expressed by Mrs. Golda Meir, in a personal message sent to the conference in Brussels: "Let us call upon men of good will, Jew and non-Jew, throughout the world, to join with us in the appeal to the authorities in the USSR — 'Let my people go.''' This is the hope of Jews worldwide, including the more than three million Jews in the Soviet Union today. That's more than the total Jewish population in the State of Israel. What concerns world Jewry is the reluctance of Soviet authorities to allow large numbers of Jews to emigrate. It is this Soviet restriction of movement, coupled with a government ban on the outward practice of their religion and culture, that irritates so many Jews the world over. "These restrictions violate one of the first principles of human rights — the right to choose one's own place to live and to worship as one pleases," was a common statement by many delegates at the conference in Brussels. Arthur Goldberg, past United States Ambassador to the United Nations, said at the conference that no one wished to antagonize or even to speak badly of the Soviet Union, but the delegates did want to call attention to the humanitarian clauses in the Soviet constitution that guaranteed its citizens the right to worship as they desired. They wanted these guarantees applied in fairness to the Jewish people.
Russia's Relationship With Israel
The present Russian attitude against allowing Jews to emigrate can best be understood by looking at its relations with the State of Israel over the past 20 years. In 1948, Russia was one of the first states to recognize the new nation of Israel. The reasons for this are not difficult to see. A full 75 percent of the founding fathers of Israel were of Russian or East European extraction, who emigrated between 1880 and 1930. There was even the Kibbutz movement among the early Israelis — a share and share alike communal type of organization that seemed to have some similarities to the collectives the Russians were attempting to establish in the USSR. The Soviet supported the new state of Israel in an attempt to weaken British influence in the Middle East. The Soviets realized that the Jews had many grievances against Britain and hoped these could be the tool that would alienate the Israelis from the West. Thus they hoped Israel could be used as a bridgehead of Communism in the Middle East. But the Soviet Union failed to understand the real Jewish aspirations in Palestine. The Zionists were simply making a national home for the Jewish people, with no sophisticated political philosophy behind their plans. And even the Kibbutz movement is a unique social phenomenon not at all politically oriented towards the Soviet ideas of Communism. It was only invoked as a means of settling many incoming Jews onto producing farms, since many of the immigrants had no money to buy a farm or set themselves up in business. The Kibbutzim were not intended to be an idealized Communist experiment to show the virtues of Bolshevism. Furthermore, no one in Israel has ever been forced to join a Kibbutz. There is individual freedom. Many do not realize that the majority of farms in Israel are not the collective Kibbutzim, but are Moshavim, where the land is farmed privately. The Soviets were also unaware of the very strong inclination of the Israeli people toward democracy. This led to strong ties with the democratic nations of the West, including Britain. Consequently, the newly founded Russo-Israeli relations were doomed to failure from the start, and the Russians finally came to realize that the Israelis would not serve as a tool for Communist expansion into the Middle East.
Results of the Six-Day War
Realizing they had little to gain from Israel, the Soviets in 1953 came to the decision it would be far more preferable to favor the Arab side in the Middle East conflict. This support became total when Russia demanded Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai peninsula in 1956. It culminated finally in the total break in diplomatic relations during the start of the Six-Day War in 1967. But, while diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Israel were ended, an interesting relationship between the Jews of Russia and Israel was just starting. The Russian Jews had just seen (despite the distorted Russian news accounts) tiny Israel stand up to the combined might of the Arab world and Russia (their major backer), and what's more — the Israelis had succeeded! In Russia this led to an awakening and a new hope on the part of Russian Jews totally unheard of before. Synagogue attendance increased. Some took the liberty of writing to the Israeli government and to the United Nations pleading for help. Still others went so far as actually to petition the Soviet government for exit visas. And some people were even granted them!
Seeking World Support
The Brussels conference was called not so much because of the plight of Soviet Jewry as in response to the efforts of the Russian Jews themselves. One major purpose of the conference was to show Russian Jews that their brethren around the world totally supported them. It was further hoped that the governments of the Western democracies would lend their support to the cause of minority groups behind the Iron Curtain. Many have wondered, why just the Jews? Aren't all religions persecuted in Soviet Russia? Many people have felt this to be the case. Inasmuch as Russia is a Communist country and Communism officially professes atheism, being a member of any church group could be a detriment to anyone wishing to participate in government or politics. However, many have not realized that apart from this restriction, the various religions are allowed to function rather freely in the Soviet Union. This is true as long as they do not criticize the government. Freedom to practice religion is guaranteed by the Soviet constitution. What the organizers of the Brussels conference wanted to point out is that the Jews have been consistently denied the same privileges that other religious groups are granted. For example, since 1917, Jews have been forbidden to publish the Hebrew Bible either in the original or in a Russian translation, while other denominations have regularly been permitted to print Bibles and other religious material. Neither are the Jews allowed to maintain schools for the training of religious personnel, though other religions are allowed this privilege. Nor are Jewish theologians allowed to study abroad or attend international gatherings of Jewish religious leaders. Both of these concessions, too, are granted to the members of other religious bodies. There are a number of Russian groups that are members of the World Council of Churches.
So vast a nation as the Soviet Union contains many national, ethnic groups. The Soviet Union is considered to be a conglomerate of all of them, with each national group guaranteed the freedom of cultural expression and development by the Soviet constitution. The Jews, too, are considered a national group. In fact, Stalin at one time attempted to establish a "national home" for them in Biro-bidzhan in eastern Siberia, near the Chinese border. In the last Soviet census over 500,000 Jews listed Yiddish as their mother tongue. There are, however, no Yiddish newspapers, except one literary monthly magazine, and the Yiddish books printed are few in number. These are quickly purchased by the Yiddish speaking public as soon as they are made available. Yiddish is slowly dying out, as there are no Yiddish• schools. (Note: In Israel, where Hebrew, not Yiddish, is the mother tongue, there is still a Yiddish daily newspaper and publishing house.) The use of the Hebrew language has been discouraged continually because of its association with the Bible as well as Zionism, the Jewish nationalist movement.
Jews were anciently barred from settling anywhere in Russia. However, this changed suddenly when in three successive wars in 1772, 1793, and 1795, Russia, under Catherine the Great, succeeded in conquering most of Poland. All at once millions of Polish Jews found themselves unwanted inhabitants of the Czarist empire. The attitude of the Czars can be summed up in three words, "Orthodoxy, Autocracy and (Russian) Nationality" as stated by Count Uvarov, minister of public enlightenment under Nicholas 1. There Jews were looked upon as an alien people who had no place in Russia. Religionists preached against them and fanned the flames of hatred. This culminated in the pogroms — bloody riots usually government approved and occasionally government encouraged, lasting at times for days and taking their toll in plunder, rapine and the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of innocents — especially women and children. These persecutions were so severe that both President Theodore Roosevelt of the United States and the British Government strongly denounced them. This caused hundreds of thousands and finally millions of Jews, who could scrape up the necessary funds, to migrate to the United States, Palestine, Britain and elsewhere. When the Communists came on the scene in 1917, they proclaimed their opposition to anti-Semitism. But they also proclaimed their opposition to Zionism on the grounds that the Zionists were trying to set up a nation as a haven for oppressed Jews. The Bolsheviks felt that the Jews should work for the success of international Communism and in that find their haven. The utter emptiness of this concept was clearly demonstrated to the Jews during the Nazi period, when 1) the Communists did little to protest the prewar Nazi persecutions, 2) the Hitler-Stalin pact enabled the Nazis to conquer most of Poland and put millions more helpless people under Nazi administration and 3) during the war itself, the Communists did help the Jews, but only so far as it was in the direct interest of the Russian war effort. Finally, after the war, when the Communists took up the Arab cause, the anti-Zionist pronouncements intensified. In many a Russian mind, however, conditioned to centuries of anti-Semitism, there was little difference between a Zionist and a Jew. The Communists are aware what unbridled anti-Semitism can lead to — witness the Nazi holocaust. They do, therefore, attempt to keep it under control. Nonetheless, "It is quite evident that, once again, anti-Semitism has begun to be used as an instrument of public policy to divert the disaffection of the people to the Jewish scapegoat" (Baron, The Russian Jew Under Tsars and Soviets, p. 333). Yet, in spite of anti-Semitism, Soviet leaders realize that the Jews in the Soviet Union make a great contribution to the nation.
Jews Key Citizens
This is one practical reason why the Russians do not seem willing to give carte blanche approval for its Jewish population to leave. While the Jewish people represent less than 2 % of the total population in the Soviet Union, they account for 15% of doctors, 9% of all writers and journalists, 10% of the judges and lawyers, and 8% of actors, musicians and artists. Jews are also represented by a high proportion of scientists, educators and even military men. If the Soviet Union would indiscriminately allow these talented people to leave, Russian cultural and scientific life would suffer. And further, if mass emigration were permitted, the Arab countries would object most strenuously, because the majority would undoubtedly go to Israel and thereby strengthen that country's position. These are practical problems facing the Soviet Union which the Jewish leaders at the Brussels conference seemed to acknowledge. Forcing the government of the Soviet Union into an extremist attitude to solve their "Jewish problem" is not what most Jews want. As Prof. Hans Morgenthau of City College, New York, expressed it: "What we want is quiet diplomacy. Mass emigration from Russia is an ideal unobtainable at the present." Thus, for the present, it seems impractical to hope for the Soviet Union to release their Jewish nationals en masse. But it is hoped that the Soviet authorities will lessen restrictions on their Jewish population and allow them freedom to practice their religious beliefs and to perpetuate their own culture without government interference. Even if a slight amelioration of the present Jewish plight inside the Soviet Union can be brought about as a result of the Brussels conference, it will have been deemed a success.
Following the Brussels Conference, the world press reported a sharp rise in the number of Russian Jews being granted exit permits. For the first half of March, the number is said to have averaged about 15 to 25 daily. This is unprecedented when you consider that the total emigration for 1970 was only 1000. Furthermore, it is believed that some non-Jews may now try to avail themselves of the unusual opportunity to emigrate. This surprisingly pleasant news has left Jewish leaders asking two major questions. First, why the seemingly sudden change of heart on the part of Soviet authorities and more important, Soviet authorities and more important, will the flow of emigrants be allowed to continue? With regard to the former, many Jews believe it was due to the convening of the 24th Communist Party Congress on March 30. Numerous foreign delegations were in attendance, including the Italian party, which has come out in favor of emigration. Others believe it is an attempt to get rid of the more outspoken Jews so the Soviet image will no longer be tarnished in this way. At present both these reasons are merely speculative and only time will prove their validity. As for the far more significant question of whether the current emigration rate can continue, the New York Times stated, "If the rate of 15 a day of the last two weeks is maintained, a record for emigration would probably be set, but many here (in Moscow) are skeptical that authorities will maintain such a rate for long" (March 17, 1971 issue). But not everyone agrees with this rather pessimistic prediction. Many today believe Soviet Jews can and will have a brighter future. Israeli Prime Minister Mrs. Golda Meir has said: "I am convinced that the Soviet Government will have to come to the conclusion that there is no solution for this problem, except to let them go" (Jerusalem Post Weekly, Dec. 21, 1970). These words bring to mind an ancient Biblical prophecy: "Behold, I will bring them from the north country, and gather them from the coasts of the earth... a great company shall return thither" (Jeremiah 31:8). This is the hope of Jewry the world over.