Interview with Benjamin Fain

Why did you involve yourself in an attempt to recreate Jewish culture in the USSR?

My friends and I realised that one of the main problems of Soviet Jewry now is the problem of survival. Our activities were not so much directed at recreating Jewish culture but at helping those who wished to know something about their Jewishness. We understood that many people wanted to learn about their heritage. We also understood that there is a crisis in aliya within the Soviet-Jewish movement and that this is linked to lack of Jewish knowledge.

Doesn’t this educational programme divert people from the main struggle?

Not at all, we are not against aliya. On the contrary, we are for it. I think this movement of Jewish self-awareness will attract many new forces. Many intellectuals in the west who do not wish to deal with political questions would like to support this trend.

There are about 20 prisoners of conscience, about 2,000 refuseniks and between two and three million Soviet Jews. We don’t recognise in a general sense that there is a priority. Everything is important. If we don’t care about the prisoners, many of us who are left in Moscow would probably be put in prisons and camps ourselves.

If we don’t care about the refuseniks, who will save Soviet Jewry and act as a link between it and the west? If we don’t care about Soviet Jewry, then we will not have a reservoir for future aliya and thus the survival of the Jewish people.

If the programme is aimed at changing the internal situation, doesn’t it pose a greater threat to the authorities than methods of direct action to secure emigration only?

There were seminars and ulpanim before the establishment of the educational programme. In essence, the KGB were reconciled to the existence of such institutions. Their fear is the spreading influence of programmes of self-education. They accepted the situation of a ghetto of refuseniks, but did not want to see it extended to those Jews who had not applied to leave.

Many such Jews are afraid to go to seminars for fear of reprisals. Our plans are not concerned with a widening network of these seminars. We anticipate the next stage of the development of Jewish identity in broad self-enlightenment, in Jewish self-education using books and tapes.

For example, we publish a typewritten magazine, entitled Tarbut (culture). We try to circulate this magazine and other publications to Jews who have not applied to leave and even to those who don’t think about it. We don’t wish to make a revolution; we are proceeding step by step.

Is it significant that you and Professor Mark Azbel, who were the organisers of the cultural symposium last December, are now in Israel whereas Shcharansky, the advocate of direct action, is now in prison on a reported treason charge?

It’s part of a general policy. They would like to get rid of all of us, but not to let us leave the country. I was with Iosif Begun on February 28 when we went to the American Embassy in Moscow to present a paper on the cultural symposium, specifying the violations by the authorities during that period.

We were arrested together and released later. Two days afterwards, he was arrested again. Now he is in exile while I was allowed to leave. An applicant to emigrate probably thinks that he has two possibilities: exile or freedom in Israel.

What will happen to the scientific and Cultural seminars now that you and Azbel have left?

The scientific seminar will continue in September, after the summer vacation. It is not yet known who will head it but there are many professors in Moscow. It will take place in someone else’s flat, maybe Victor Brailovsky’s.

As for cultural activities, I was not alone. There are many friends— Prestin, Abramovich, and others—who will continue this work.

Has there been an increase in applications to emigrate as a result of the programme?

We don’t like to think in such absolute terms. It’s a question of Jewish survival. It’s a Jewish tradition to help those who need help, especially if it’s cultural and spiritual.

If someone realises that he is a Jew and wants to live a full Jewish life, then he will also realise that he has no other choice than to leave the country and go to Israel. We don’t want to pressurise him and tell him that he must go to Israel. We only want to supply him with information and knowledge, then he will decide for himself.

Have the educational activities led to a deepening religious interest among Soviet Jews?

Yes, without any doubt. There are some in Moscow now who are observant. Familiarity with Jewish history and philosophy has persuaded many new people to join the religion of their forefathers.

Will there be any further repressions of Jews in Moscow?

When I was in Moscow I heard that between 60 and 80 people, most of them Jews, were charged with economic crimes. It is not beneath the authorities to use this weapon to intimidate the Jewish population. If Shcharansky is brought to trial, this too will be used to frighten the Jews as a whole.

Iosif Begun’s case, which received little publicity in the west, is yet another example of such tactics. His exile for two years as a parasite was a violation of the international covenant on political and civil rights, which states that no one should be compelled to work against his will.

Begun was charged and tried for allegedly not working, despite the fact that since his application to leave, he has worked as a Hebrew teacher. The court refused to allow the defence lawyer to submit evidence of such work during the trial.

Many of his pupils wished to be witnesses at his trial, but the court refused this, too. Clearly the parasitism charge was only a pretext for the KGB to vent its wrath on Begun for his cultural activities.

Jewish Observer 28 July 1977

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