Soviet Jewry’s Unfinished Agenda

Against the Current, No. 20, May/June 1989

Larry Magarik

MY COUSIN ALEXEI served a year and a half in a Soviet prison because he decided to teach Hebrew and emigrate from the Soviet Union. Alexei Magarik, reported to be the last “Prisoner of Zion” released from Soviet prisons, now lives in Israel. Alexei is a 29-year-old cellist and refusenik. He and his wife have a young child, Chaim, a little younger than my own son, Benjamin Grisha.

In March 1986, Soviet police arrested Alexei for alleged possession of a small quantity of hashish. Alexei had no prior record of crime or drug use and denied the charge, which has often been used against refusenik activists in recent years. Alexei was sentenced to three years in prison.

My family’s consciousness is intertwined with the history of Soviet Jewry. Alexei and I are reputedly descended from a medieval Italian Talmudist who authored the commentary Sefer Maharik. Alexei’s great-grandfather, Mendel Leib, was the older brother of my grandfather, Zalman Dovber. Mendel Leib trained my father for his bar mitzva.

The Magariks were comfortable Riga Jews until the First World War. My grandfather fled with his family to Barnaul, Siberia Two older brothers became Bolsheviks during the civil war. Most of the family left for the United States in the 1920s, while some remained. Our closest relations from Riga left the USSR in the early 1970s and have already scattered to Israel, New Zealand and Western Europe in search of a new life.

Mendel Leib’s daughter Sofia, a physician, was expelled from the Soviet Communist Party in 1934 but permitted to rejoin in 1954. Sofia’s son Vladimir is Alexei’s father. Vladimir’s uncle spent a decade in a Soviet labor camp. Vladimir, a Moscow mathematician, who knew little of “our side” of the family, left the Soviet Union in 1979 and now lives in the United States.

Against this personal background I contemplate the Soviet Jewish question. As a teenager in the 1960s I participated in many demonstrations against the Vietnam War and for Soviet Jewry.

The American Jewish establishment was then disinterested in the Soviet Jewish issue. The dramatic Zionist upsurge after the Six-Day War eventually changed this, either due to idealistic pressure from below, guilt at charges that Jewish leaders “did nothing” during the Nazi holocaust, or perhaps direct pressure by the State of Israel, which was anxious for a demographic influx from Russia.

Most Soviet Jews who left under the Nixon-Brezhnev detente settled in the free-for-all jungle of American urban decay and competition, angry at Russia but also not thrilled with America. In the 1970s the American Jewish community moved to the right day by day, embracing “neo-conservatism” while the Soviet regime was embracing “neo-Stalinism.”

I moved leftward, increasingly alienated from the tenor of American Jewish discourse, which identified with Cold War military hysteria, confused the Soviet Union with terrorism, opposed affirmation action for Blacks, and stressed social climbing (calling it “meritocracy”). Support for Soviet Jewry then became mixed up with criticism of Soviet Communism for having insufficient consumer items, being “bleak/grey,” for the official atheism of the state, for “red tape/lines/bureaucracy” (of which I see plenty in New York) and for Russian children pledging to inform on their parents.

Let My People Stay!

The stakes for the Jewish people in the Soviet Jewry battle are extremely high — far higher, I fear, than most who espouse their cause recognize. The Soviet Jews are the third largest Jewish community in the world. Even if, as now seems likely, free emigration is permitted, the bulk of Soviet Jewry will remain in the Soviet Union, just as it did during the years of mass Jewish emigration from the czarist empire, since natural population growth offsets emigration.

Soviet repression may stir Jewish pride but even among self-conscious Soviet Jews, the desire to maintain their Jewishness in their own country outweighs consideration of emigration for an uncertain and lonely future abroad.

Resolution of the Soviet Jewish question simply into “Let my people go” for the minority who would leave rather than “Let my people live” for the majority who will remain, effectively “writes off” the second largest diaspora Jewish community like the Ten Lost Tribes. That resolution would be a catastrophe for the Jewish people, even if it appeals to some Zionists who see no hope in the Diaspora.

That resolution would also, I believe, constitute surrender to Hitler’s goal of eradicating Ashkenazic Jewry. But the suppression of Soviet Jewish life is not an inevitable fact, in light both of the current Jewish defiance and, of modem history.

Jews under the czar, a super-oppressed national minority, were drawn by poverty, violence and discrimination in several directions: revolutionary radicalism, emigration, Zionism, organized resistance (by the poor) or attempted assimilation (by the rich). Like Blacks in America, Jews in Russia were specially oppressed and especially attracted to radicalism, and remain disproportionately significant to progressive politics in each country.

The Bolshevik Revolution was widely supported by Russian Jews and promised their liberation. The revolution fiercely opposed, and was fiercely opposed by, the Jews’ enemies.

The 1920s were, in many respects, a golden era: the Soviet state outlawed antisemitism, affirmatively promoted a Jewish cultural renaissance, eliminated restrictions on Jewish social advancement. Of course, religious Judaism, like Russian Orthodoxy — and not singled out for special discrimination — came into conflict with Bolshevism’s anti-clericalism; economic insecurity spurred emigration; and a strain of “populist” anti-semitism entered Bolshevik ranks with the entry of the peasant masses into the “winning” party. Jewish Communists, who occupied dominant roles in the regime, espoused .integration and repressed Zionists. By the 1930s Soviet policy resulted in mass assimilation of Jews into Soviet society, like their counterparts in the United States.

Stalinist Anti-semitism

Soviet government antisemitism is historically rooted in the victory of Stalinism, which created an industrial revolution and a social counter-revolution. Official Soviet antisemitism reared its head first in Stalin’s attack on his opponents in the party, led by Jews to his left, such as Trotsky, and to his fight, such as the Bukharinists. Stalinist antisemitism might be viewed as a backlash against Jewish assimilation but was also focused on Jewish prominence among the party intelligentsia whom Stalin needed to eliminate.

World War II changed the picture. The Soviet Union, militarily and geographically, became virtually the exclusive haven for Eastern European Jewry. Due to its all-out anti-fascism, the USSR treated Jews as allies, in a protective manner. Jews loyally repaid Soviet help in military valor and sacrifice.

Their sense of Jewish national identity was also reawakened by Nazism, by the clear failure of the modern Jewish faith in assimilation, by their recognition that virulent Jew-hatred persisted among millions of Soviet citizens, as well as, to a lesser extent, by Zionist ideology.

The anti-semitic populations of Poland, the Ukraine, Byelorussia, and the Baltic states vigorously helped Hitler exterminate the Jews, with their own nationalistic (and anti-Soviet) flair. Forty percent of Soviet Jewry perished in Nazi concentration camps or in battle.

Official protection of the Jews continued in the immediate post-war years. Jewish culture experienced a state-subsidized revival, the Holocaust was publicly commemorated and the Soviet Union sponsored the establishment of the Israeli state. In 1948-1953 Stalin’s suppression of Jewish culture, murder of Jewish leadership, anti-Jewish campaign in the mass media and economic life, thus came as an enormous jolt.

Stalinist antisemitism bared its teeth once the common Nazi enemy was defeated. The Soviet government appealed to popular antisemitism for support in the face of the Cold War and to divert mass disappointment with its failure to deliver on promises of postwar freedom. The Cold War produced an inter­ national realignment, in which Israel, which had originally stood up to the British empire, now sided with U.S. imperialism, while the Soviet Union embraced Arab anti-colonialism and accordingly decided to outlaw Zionism, by now the one remaining non-disillusioned ideology among the Jews.

The Khrushchevist “thaw,” far from reversing Soviet antisemitism, institutionalized it. Nikita Khrushchev, anti­semite and Stalinist himself, notably re­ fused to expose Stalin’s anti-Jewish crimes along with the other results of his “personality cult.” In the 1950s and ’60s, Jew-baiting became standard in the official media. Repression against the practice of the Jewish religion intensified (despite tolerance for most Christian practice) and reached its height in the prohibition of matza-baking. Meanwhile, Israeli servility to the United States deepened, as did Soviet Arabism.

The 1968-1978 period of detente between the United States and the Soviet Union was negotiated by the “conservative” administrations of both countries — reacting, in part, to mass challenges to their authority from below in each of their respective blocs. The Brezhnev regime made it clear that it had no use for the Jews and let almost 200,000 leave as part of a diplomatic exchange.

For the Jews, however, thus mini-exodus had contradictory characteristics. The emigres refused to settle in Israel but instead flocked to New York, where economic life was easier and there was no danger of military conscription.

The heating up of the new Cold War and breakdown of detente at the end of the Carter administration, combined with a vocal Jewish insistence on anti-Soviet trade barriers, boomeranged by causing the Soviet Union to cut off all Jewish emigration, while continuing the ongoing persecution of Jewish applicants for emigration.

Exclusive Emigrationism

By this time, the focus of the Western Soviet Jewry movement (now professionalized) had turned to an exclusive demand for emigration with no interest in Soviet Jewish life, strategized and enunciated in plainly right-wing, anti-communist language.

The failure of the professional Soviet Jewry forces in inducing emigration through attacks on the Soviet Union were in contrast to the large emigration achieved as part of great-power diplomacy, but both accomplished little for Jewish community freedom inside the USSR. Even as to the emigration goal, the American Jewish establishment floundered on its own misconceptions, adopted from Birchite ideology, which became respectable under Reaganism.

The strategy was to force the Soviet Union to release Jews by applying pressure agam.st its supposedly parlous economic system, but its premise was a mere fantasy of the U.S. right. The Soviet Union is, in fact, a first-rate superpower with a stable, durable economic machine, inferior in many respects (consumerism) but superior in other respects (security from world market crises) to comparable industrialized nations. The tactics that were proposed and applied are appropriate only to minor Third World gadflies with fragile economies and only backfired with the USSR.

The newest elaborations of this strategy — based on the Soviets’ alleged desperate need for U.S. computer technology — are similarly doomed to practical failure. More pernicious is the opposition to arms control as an alleged means to pressure the Soviet Union into releasing Jews, since this opposition is premised on the foolish notion that only the Soviet Union would benefit from arms deals, or that it would collapse if forced to withstand another arms race.

Similarly wrong-headed are strategies based mainly on overseas public relations, which could be dealt with by the Soviet Union cosmetically.

Reform and Soviet Jews

The final, more sophisticated misconception may be that reform within the Soviet Union necessarily favors the Jews. This question is very much alive.

In order for the Gorbachev reform program to produce any advances for the Jews, the interests of the Gorbachev administration and the Soviet interests it represents must coincide with Soviet Jewish interests in some perceptible way. Ouster of the Brezhnevist elite in favor of a new party machine does not necessarily advance the goals of the Soviet Jewish community. These include the legalization and encouragement of Jewish culture and ethnic identity within e Soviet Union; an end to the persecution of Jewish activists, including Zionists; suppression of public antisemitism as well as free rights of emigration (now a real issue) return.

Party democratization and intellectual tolerance may or may not be as irrelevant to these goals as are economic changes (mistakenly welcomed as mimicry of capitalism in the West). If no concern or program for Soviet Jewish life were presented, then there would certainly be no reason or basis for any change in CP policy toward the Jews even under a reform regime.

The survival and revitalization of Soviet Jewish life will require as preconditions: the exposure of past anti-semitism and its suppression in the future by the state; state support for Jewish education and culture; the acceptance of Jewish life within communism by a viable leadership of the Jewish community — a crucial gap because the nominal leaders of the Soviet Jewry were discredited government spies while the opposition activists eschewed any program for Jewish life under Soviet rule and favored emigration.

Gorbachev’s party would be historically accurate in rejecting the existence of any Jewish national problem in the Soviet Union if Jews foreswear the necessity of a solution other than emigration. On the other side of the coin, the emigration issue is entirely dependent on the fate of USSR-Israel-U.S. negotiations that have been proceeding behind the scenes for some time with few results other than the release of certain prominent individuals as tokens of good faith, enabling the talks to continue. Israel seeks a mass Soviet Jewish emigration in the mandatory form of an aliyah to Israel and has no concrete interest in Jewish life in diaspora Russia.

The Soviet Union seeks to broker a pax sovieticus in the Middle East and has no concrete interest in restricting Jewish emigration. Each nation’s interest is to hold out so long as there is no agreement. The wild card is the Bush administration. The Reagan administration had studiously blocked any Israel-Soviet accord whenever it appeared to reach consummation. What will Bush’s approach be?

Dramatic events have proved Soviet government amenability to Jewish revitalization within the Soviet Union in the last year. A limited program is being presented and met. Huge issues of goals Jewish education, clergy, circumcision, separatism/integration) and strategy (adversarial nationalism/alliance with perestroika, attachment to overseas Jews/avoidance of anti-sovietism, rejection of the party/reliance on state funding) for Jewish ethnic life arise. All is in a flux, probably related to behind-the-scenes Mideast peace negotiations.

In 1913 Lenin, discussing the rights of minorities after the socialist revolution that he was organizing, explicitly promised that the state would eradicate anti­semitism, avoid forcible Jewish assimilation, and guarantee and fund education in Jewish history, language and culture for the Jews and their children.

Teaching Hebrew, which in the United States helped me to work my way through college, landed my cousin Alexei Magarik in prison in the Soviet Union of the 1980s. The Soviet opposition to minority nationalism has led only to repression and failure. It is clearly the time to reverse this betrayal of Lenin’s promise and to act affirmatively to realize and enforce the guarantees of Jewish national freedom still enshrined in the Soviet Constitution.

May-June 1989, ATC 20

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