Is the Soviet Jewry campaign too narrow?

Calls for a change in the basis of the Soviet Jewry campaign has been made frequently in the past few years and have even included demands that it should be turned into an overtly anti-Soviet action.

Such a policy would clearly appeal to people whose prime motive is ideological anti-Communism and not concern for the best way to help Soviet Jews.

Significantly, those who in the past have called for such a change are to the right of the political spectrum. Those in the centre and the left have not utilised the Soviet Jewry issue to show their contempt for, and disgust of, the social system in the USSR.

More often than not, workers for Soviet Jewry have called the campaign non-political. In the field of human rights, this can be regarded as marginally true. Action taken in this regard may indeed be non-political. But the action is derived from an implicit political criticism of Soviet policy to nationalities. This is the Jewish case—nothing more, nothing less.

People lIke Lionel Bloch, a prominent Soviet Jewry activist seek to widen the front. From the practical point of view, it is impossible to defend all democrats fighting for human rights in the USSR apart from token measure on basic humanitarian grounds.

This is not a narrow national-lade viewpoint but a pragmatic, if difficult, approach which has been applied with success over the past ten years.

In the mid-1960s, David Khavkin, a Jewish activist in Moscow, laid down guidelines for the movement’s strategy. He believed that activists should work within the letter of Soviet law and interpret it at its face value.

This level of morality placed the KGB in a quandary. No longer could they abuse and distort the legal system according to whim. It did not matter how often they ranted and raved and called Khavkin “anti-Soviet”. They still found themselves trapped by their own laws.

Changing attitudes

As public protests grew, western intellectuals protected Soviet Jews because of their respect for law and justice.

The exodus movement grew up in the late 1960s following this line. All open letters concerned only Jewish matters which could be justified within Soviet law.

The movement did not protest about Crimean Tartars or Ukrainian nationals—not because they did not sympathise with their ideals but because their Jewish platform involved an evolution of the Soviet altitude on emigration.

They believed rightly that the platform of other groups involved a fundamental change in the Soviet way of thinking—even of its ideological approach.

Even from the pragmatic point of view, the Jews were merely leaving for their national homeland — something comparatively minor compared with the demands for radical change within the USSR being made by other groups.

The Jewish groups in the west followed the movement in the USSR and modelled their approach on the attitudes of the Soviet activists and their actions which derived from that policy.

Almost ten years ago, Lionel Bloch called on protesting Jewish students to join demonstrating Ukrainian nationalists.

They refused, because they did not believe that it would help the Jewish cause. Some, however, were not keen on the prospect of expressing solidarity with some of the other nationalists whose deep hatred of the Jews was well known, following the invasion of the Ukraine by the Nazis during the last war.

Since those days, over 100,000 Soviet Jews have left the USSR. This was due not just to the wave of protest, but to the fact that those protests followed the current cause.

Some young people in the past have quite justly been horrified at the narrow official attitudes concerning non-Jews such as Dr. Andrei Sakharov. Four years ago, Sakharov’s work for Soviet Jews was ignored and his letters on specific Jewish cases remained unpublished by Soviet Jewry organisations in the west.

The plight of Fedorov and Muzhenko — two non-Jews sentenced in the first Leningrad trial—was ignored in Britain. They received extremely harsh prison sentences because they resisted KGB pressure to turn on their Jewish comrades.

In Moscow, activists such as Vladimir Slepak were furious at the immorality of such a policy. Slepak demonstrated outside the courtroom during the trial of Vladimir Bukovsky because Bukovsky helped the Jews.

It is thus easy to understand why the opinions of many good young Jews polarised and they immediately plunged for the wider issues of justice in the USSR.

Greater tolerance

Because of the efforts of Michael Sherbourne, Greville Janner, MP, and myself, a more tolerant viewpoint was introduced into the campaign. Today, Fedorov, Muzhenko, Sakharov and Bukovsky are mentioned in print. Even so, many young people have been driven away from the campaign through such narrow attitudes.

People still need to understand the subtleties of the campaign. It is important to understand, otherwise Soviet propaganda will, for once, have a ring of truth.

Jewish Observer 16 April 1976


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