Those Wonderful Women in Black

Those Wonderful Women in Black: The Story of the Womens Campaign for Soviet Jewry (Minerva Press) by Daphne Gerlis

Sometime in 1971, Yitzhak “Ijo” Rager, the diplomat at the Israeli Embassy unofficially responsible for Soviet Jewry activities in Britain, asked me to stand in for him and speak to a group of Jewish women who had just become aware of the plight of thousands of refuseniks in the USSR.

I did my bit in a salubrious setting in liberal Hampstead and the audience was suitably moved.

As a twentysomething, I was certain that any involvement from these representatives of bourgeois suburbia would be transient — something to occupy themselves with between the last dinner party and the next shul bazaar.

The Soviets had to be fought on a basis of understanding the history of repression since 1917; on perceiving their ideological weaknesses and sensibilities and knowing how far to push.

I was, of course, entirely wrong about these North-West London housewives. They were anything but docile and conformist.

By a combination of sophisticated public relations, a healthy sense of Jewish anarchism and pure feminine intuition, they placed the issue of Soviet Jewry so firmly on the front pages that successive Foreign Secretaries regularly listened to them. Mrs Thatcher became an assiduous and sympathetic follower of their activities.

While this is not to belittle less upfront and more clandestine activities, these “women in black” — from their distinctive demonstration garb –broke through the credibility gap which hampered the student protests of the 1960s.

Ijo Rager understood that Jewish non-working women constituted a human resource which had never been fully utilised. By a combination of guile, charm and Israeli chutzpah, Rager persuaded the women to pursue an adventurous campaign — often in defiance of his older, more staid superiors back in Israel

Then they took off by themselves and were literally a law unto themselves, which no diplomat or Jewish leader could control. They did not care for titles or prestigious positions and their often innovative techniques for gaining publicity for Soviet Jews left many a communal representative gasping with apoplectic outrage.

Although I briefed them at weekly sessions for several years, they always made up their own minds and followed an independent course of action.

They named themselves the 35s because their first case was that of Raisa Palatnik, a 35-year-old refusenik from Odessa, and because that was their own average age.

Thus, they were also the children of the Holocaust generation. They understood that, in a sense, all Jews – were survivors and that acquiescence with and appeasement of authority were rewarded with bitter herbs and not exodus.

Daphne Gerlis has written a popular record of this remarkable group of women, who are still helping Russian Jews in Israel. The 35s were an important factor in breaking down the gates which resulted in the mass emigration of the early

A few weeks ago, Ijo Rager lost his fight against cancer in Beer-Sheva This work will serve as a lasting testimony to his inspiration, foresight personal determination to help Soviet brothers and sisters in their courageous struggle.

Jewish Chronicle 25 July 1997

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