Soviet Jewry Files

The files just released by the Public Records Office under the 30 year rule indicate that the Government of Edward Heath was unnerved by the possibility of disruptive Jewish demonstrations of cultural events and political visits by Soviet glitterati. Downing Street was quite taken aback in particular at the conveyor belt demonstrations staged by the 35s, the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry. The activities of these Jewish housewives repeatedly attracted media attention whether they were sweeping floors in imitation of a sacked Soviet Jew, greeting Soviet destroyers in Portsmouth or appearing in white sheets as ghosts at Karl Marx’s grave to ‘scare’ off Andrei Gromyko.

In the spring of 1971, the late Ijo Rager, assigned to the Israeli Embassy, asked me to deputise for him and speak to a group of women in Hampstead who had become interested in the plight of Soviet Jewry, following a plethora of collective trials, sit-ins and demonstrations across the Soviet Union. I said my piece, answered questions and truly believed that nothing more would come of this. My background was the student movement of the 1960s, how then, I reasoned, could these apolitical, well-to-do-women ever hope to batter down the walls of the Kremlin. Charity bazaars and fundraising dinners were one thing, but helping Soviet Jews was a serious matter. A few weeks later, the 35s were formed under the leadership of Doreen Gainsford, Joan Dale and Barbara Oberman. They dressed in black and proceeded to campaign for a 35 year old Odessa refusenik, Raisa Palatnik. The rest, to put it mildly, is history.

The 35s ruffled the feathers of the British Government, the established Anglo-Jewish leadership as well as official circles in Israel because they were an independent group which was impervious to external control. The pronouncements of the Board of Deputies were studiously ignored. The charismatic Ijo Rager repeatedly failed to charm them. I briefed them every Monday, flagging up the most serious cases – and sometimes wondered if they had been listening to me. I began to understand that political analysis was a secondary concern, these women had come of age in the shadow of the Shoah and the rise of Israel. Despite their pleasant lives in sedate suburbia, they understood instinctively what was required of them – and they applied themselves to the task with passion, conviction and determination.

Jewish students under the leadership of Gordon Hausmann, Jonathan Lewis and the late Malcolm Lewis had initiated the campaign for Soviet Jewry in the mid-1960s. By 1972, students could safely be marginalised, but respectable non-working Jewish women, a considerable human resource, could not – especially if their innovative protests repeatedly hit the headlines. The vested interests of the British Government and the Jewish community were decidedly different. With the blossoming of superpower détente, the Heath administration observed the trade gates of the Soviet Union slowly opening and were eagerly preparing. Many British Jews instead saw the persecution, imprisonment and intense harassment of their brothers and sisters. This posed a problem for the establishment organisations who were well versed in the arts of silent diplomacy and quiet intervention. Their personal determination to help Soviet Jews was balanced by their hesitation in confronting the British Government head-on. The 35s, on the other hand, as the latest documents show, broke all the rules. It was a magnificent combination of feminine intuition and the best traditions of Jewish anarchism. The response of the Foreign Secretary, Sir Alec Douglas-Hume, was to suggest that such insistent protests ‘only harden ill feelings on all sides and make concessions to Soviet Jews less likely’. The 35s ignored such received wisdom and ploughed on such that Sir Alec’s successor David Owen and later Mrs Thatcher decided to work with the group during the era of the Helsinki Agreement and the Carter Presidency.

Ijo Rager resisted pressure from his superiors to ensure the 35s towed the line. Not a career diplomat, he understood that different groups could help Soviet Jewry in different ways. The common denominator was that all efforts had to be constructive and targeted towards the same ends. Yet, this was often easier said than done.

None of us believed that the Soviet Union would collapse 20 years later. Now former refuseniks – almost unbelievably – sit in Israeli cabinets. It is a powerful testimony to the efforts of the 35s and indeed to those who disagreed with them. They saw the future and never lost faith in that vision.

Jewish Chronicle 17 January 2003

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