Human Rights and Soviet Jewry

Throughout the centuries Jews have been associated with the struggle for human rights – not only for themselves, but in spirit, and more often in practice, for the community in which they lived. This was, perhaps, an outcome of the ethical teachings of Judaism that, in the depths of persecution and personal suffering, a Jew was sensitive to the problems of his environment. In modern times, with the dissipation of the isolationism of the Jewish masses and a grudging willingness by the outside world to accept them, many individuals have transcended the barrier of fighting for purely Jewish rights to become radicals, reformers and revolutionaries.

During the ‘thirties, right up to Khrushchev’s revelations of Stalin’s terror, there was, perhaps, a polarisation between those who fought purely for Jewish causes and those who considered themselves universalists and internationalists who believed their set task to be the creation of a better world for all mankind. In the past few decades, there has been a deepening realisation of the imperfections hi the social system in the USSR and the cruel deceptions which it has perpetrated. The polarisation which existed is nowadays no way so sharp and, indeed, it is no coincidence that many of the most active and conscientious members of the Anglo-Jewish community today were originally ardent members of the Communist Party in their youth.

Despite the consuming work for Israel and Jewish causes. Jews in the diaspora are aware of other social injustices and violations of human rights simply because they live in a non-Jewish environment. Israel, manifesting purely Jewish national needs, has lessened that extra concern. The enormity of the day-to-day difficulties since the establishment of the State has forced all Israelis to apply themselves to their own problems. In one sense, then, the normalisation of the Jewish people as a nation-State has temporarily decreased their attachment to traditionally universalist principles.

This contradiction, originating from the different situations of Jews in Israel and in the diaspora, has obviously posed questions for the Jewish emigration movement in the Soviet Union and its relationship with Russian Democrat: and human rights activists.

Soviet Jews have argued, correctly, hat to become part of an amorphous Democratic movement would not further he cause of repatriation to Israel. In demanding internal changes, amounting in essence to ‘ the liberalisation of the regime. they would place themselves in greater danger than simply asking to eave the country. Even so, the aims of the Democratic and Jewish national movements overlap in one or two areas. For example, the Russian Democrats support the struggle to emigrate and die demands for cultural facilities. Moreover, the two movements have a common adversary. On the Jewish side, there is the traditional universalist strain—”How can we ignore Sakharov. who has helped so many of us?” is often the response.

This approach — to work solely towards the aim of emigration to Israel—is credited to David Khavkin, who was the leader of the Moscow movement in the pre-Six-Day War period. Khavkin met the Democrats many times during the mid-‘sixties and they tried to change his point of view. At that time, the Democrats were engaged in a campaign to help the Crimean Tartars and consequently ignored the Jewish problem.

The Six-Day War and the invasion of Czechoslovakia convinced many Jewish Democrats to reconsider their position. Many became active in the Jewish national movement and emigrated to Israel. Some, such  as the Jewish Democrat, Ilya Gabai, continued their human rights work. Yet even he was not unaffected by the forces unleashed by the Six-Day War. During one meeting with the Crimean Tartars, he suddenly asked, “How do you interpret the Middle East conflict?”, to which the Tartars answered, “What do these Jews have to do on Moslem lands?” An indignant Gabai retorted: “I would sooner clean lavatories in Israel than sit here in Parliament.” Yet when Gabai was arrested, it was because literature about the plight of the Crimean Tartars had been discovered in his apartment.

In the summer of 1975, the Helsinki Accord was signed by the superpowers. This publicly committed the Kremlin to the furtherance of human rights in the USSR, and thus catalysed the transference of the human rights issue to the public arena. Moreover, the Jackson Amendment and the rejection of the US Trade Act by the USSR early in 1975 awoke American public opinion to the problem of Jewish emigration. Gerald Ford had decided to seek reelection as President and, despite Kissinger’s “quiet diplomacy” policy, had publicly decided to jump, if somewhat timidly, on to the accelerating human rights bandwagon.

With an emigration rate a third of the 1973 level, and with repression at its highest point for many years, many potential emigrants from Russia were extremely fearful of applying to leave in 1975. Most of the hard-core old-time Zionists had already emigrated to Israel. Very few of the activists who had cut their political teeth in the late ‘sixties remained. The dropout rate of Jews changing their minds at Vienna and going on to the United States and other countries was increasing all the time. The activists therefore came to the conclusion that a general cultural campaign should be waged to educate future – applicants. It would serve to stop the movement in Moscow from becoming isolated from the Jewish populace and generally raise the level of awareness which would, the activists hoped, lead to a Zionist solution to the Jewish problem.

Not all the activists placed such importance on the need for education. Some tended to personify the need for a politically activist approach rather than an educational, academic one. Although this difference of emphasis could not be described as a split, since many worked within both schools of thought and personal relationships were unimpaired, it did indirectly cement the strong bonds between the politically oriented tendency and the human rights activists.

The leading lights of the “politicists,” s opposed to the “culturalists,” were Slepak, Shcharansky and Rubin.

Vladimir Slepak, one of the really long-term refuseniks, was essentially the Jewish movement’s contact with Sakharov. He had often signed human rights protests as an individual and had participated in non-Jewish human rights demonstrations, such as those on Soviet Constitution Day. Slepak was, in many ways, the great moral conscience of the movement, a man always confident of the final goal of emigration and a source of inspiration to all around him. He understood that the Jewish movement should remain separate from other groups, yet he could not ignore the fact that many human rights activists, such as Sakharov and Tverdokhlebov, out of principle spoke up for the Jews and went out of their way to help the movement. Slepak often felt that he could not repay such support by quiet murmurings of sympathy.

Anatoly Shcharansky, the youngest, had had a typical Soviet education and certainly did not possess his associates’ background or experience that went with it. Even so, his great command of English and his good contacts with Western correspondents brought him into a close relationship with the human rights people. –

Vitaly Rubin, who was also active in cultural affairs, was perhaps the most determined of the three. Unlike Slepak, who had been brought up in a Communist household. Rubin had from his earliest days witnessed the totalitarian aspects of the Stalinist system. In 1931. Rubin’s uncle, the economist Isaac Rubin, was convicted in a trial of Mensheviks. As a result, the family was harassed and a book. “Rubinism or Marxism,” was published. In a letter to a friend in London, Vitaly Rubin described what happened to his uncle:

“When, during interrogation, various formq of physical coercion proved unsuccessful, my uncle was brought, in the night, to a cellar of the Suzdal prison, where another prisoner was being kept. His captors told him that if he didn’t confess. the prisoner would be executed immediately: if he did confess, however, the life of the prisoner would be spared. When he refused. the prisoner was murdered before his eyes. The same scene was repeated the following night and they murdered the second prisoner—he called out to my uncle before his death. Don’t confess. When they prepared to kill the third prisoner. Isaac Rubin confessed.”

The Helsinki Accord was the common meeting-point between Soviet human rights activists and the Jewish emigration movement. The Jews demanded the specific human right to emigrate, whereas the Russians included that within a general demand for human rights in the USSR. The coalescence of aims persuaded Anatoly Shcharansky and Vilely Rubin to join Yuri Orlov in founding the Moscow.7 Helsinki Monitoring Committee. Unlike other national groups (such as the Ukrainians) and religious groups (such as the Christians). they did not form a specifically Jewish Helsinki group. They did, however, represent the interests of the Jewish movement on the Moscow committee.

Between May 12, 1976, and February 10. 1977. when the arrest of Yuri Orlov took place, the group issued 19 documents. Rubin (and Slepak, who replaced him on the committee after the former’s emlgration) signed documents which related  the experience of the Jewish movement, For example, they were not accredited with the formulation of Document One, the case of Mustafa Dzhemilev, of which they knew little. Even so, out of 19 documents, Shcharansky’s name, along with other members of the Helsinki Committee. appeared on 15 of them. The vast majority were on issues with which, at one time or another, the Jewish movement had concerned itself.

Shcharansky’s involvement with the Orlov group went beyond the Jewish connection in at least two documents, number twelve, on the Ukrainian refugees, and number eighteen, on the situation of the Meshketians. Yet it is significant from the available minutes of his trial that have reached the West that Shcharansky’s work for the Helsinki group played a minor part of the prosecution’s case. The Kremlin tried Shcharansky for his devotion to the Jewish cause.

It is clear that the Kremlin feared the subtle activities of the “politicists” in the light of the United Stat,:s’ outspoken policy on human rights. losif Begun, a “culturalist,” has been sent into exile a second time, but the “politicists” have been hit extremely hard. Shcharansky is in a prison for criminals on the Volga, Vladimir Slepak and Ida Nudel are in exile, Alexander Lerner is sick, and Vitaly Rubin is living in Jerusalem.

During the tense period preceding and following Shcharansky’s arrest the universalist spirit was not extinguished. In January, 1977, 15 Jewish activists, including a number of “cultura-lists.” appealed to Jewish communities in the West to protect Orlov and Ginsburg. In April. 1977, 500 Soviet Pentacostalists, led by Bishop Nikolai Goretai, appealed to the Christians of the world to aid Shcharansky and quoted the New Tesstament in his defence.

The Jewish diaspora in the USSR would therefore appear to be exhibiting a traditional Jewish response to its situation. It is also following the legacy of the Russian Zionist movement. At the historic Helsingfors Conference in 1906, Gruenbaum, Jabotinsky and Motskin committed the Zionist movenent to organise the Jewish masses in Russia as a national ininaeit;; to fight for their national, cultural and re’iigious

The Helsingfors programme visualised a Russia which obeyed its own lay’.s and granted autonomous rights to all its peoples, including the Jewish people. 11 asked essentially for basic human rights in Russia.

Helsingfors was the old name for Helsinki. Yet the two agreements — one Zionist, the other international — some 70 years apart. echo similar sentiments even though there are distinct: differences in the situations. The relationship to those Russians who speak out against anti-Semitism and in support of Jewish emigration remains unaltered, as does the Jewish moral dilemma of whether to help them openly win they are trouble. Shcharansky, Slepak and Nudel believed that it was morally right to do so, despite the obvious danger to themselves.

Perhaps the sentiment of these courageous people was best summed up in Shcharansky’s final speech at his trial. “I am happy that I lived honestly, in peace with my conscience, and that I have never betrayed my principles, even when I was threatened with death. I am happy to have helped people I am proud to have known and to have worked with such honourable, brave people as Sakharov. Orlov and Ginsburg, they who are continuing the finest traditions of the Russian intellectuals. I am happy that I can be a witness to the the redemption of the Jews of USSR. These absurd accusation me and against the whole Jewish emigration movement will not the liberation of my people.

Jewish Chronicle 8 December 1978



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