Borderline Views: Remembering the Soviet refuseniks

The refusenik movement sprang to life following the Six Day War.

soviet soldiers wwii 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
soviet soldiers wwii 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A fascinating new book, Netiv Hadmamah, has recently been published in Hebrew. It tells the story of the involvement of the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency in the efforts to support Soviet Jewry during the 1970s and 1980s, especially through the sending of members of Jewish communities, and particularly the Zionist youth movements, for short visits to the Soviet Union, bringing with them books, pamphlets and religious objects for use by the refusenik community.
The refusenik movement sprang to life following the Six Day War. The plight of Soviet Jewry was brought to the attention of the world by Eli Weisel in his book, Jews of Silence (the title of the new book is a play on the title of Weisel’s). The worldwide Jewish community rallied to their support, bringing pressure on their own governments to raise the issue, demonstrating outside the Soviet embassies and legations (especially after Simchat Torah or with a public lighting of Hanukka candles), as well as disrupting cultural visits from the Soviet Union.
Members of the youth movements were sent on brief visits to the Soviet Union to bring books and to undertake educational activities in the houses of refuseniks. We were aware of the involvement of the Israeli government, but this was never discussed in public or by the emissaries who organized the trips – and it is only now with the publication of this book that it can be publically acknowledged.
The dynamo behind the activities was a member of Kibbutz Sa’ad in the Negev, Aryeh Kroll, who organized the emissaries, liaised with the Jewish Agency and the government and worried about the significant funding requirements of such an enterprise.
As we were frequently told in our pretrip briefings, the worst that could happen to us was that our suitcase full of Jewish and Israeli books would be confiscated and we would be immediately deported.
Our trips and meetings with local residents aroused suspicion among the local Intourist officials who often insisted on accompanying us to and from the airports or railway stations and even, in some situations, quite openly following us down the streets.
There were some incidents of people being picked up in the middle of their visits and thrown out of the country, but in the majority of cases we managed to enter the country with our “contraband,” meet with the refuseniks in their homes or in the synagogues, and return with the feeling of a mission accomplished.
My own visit was at a period of heightened tensions, in the weeks leading up to the trial of Anatoly Scharansky, now the head of the Jewish Agency. The refuseniks were undergoing a very tense period and on some occasions our pre-arranged meetings had to be cancelled at the last moment. As we exited the Soviet Union we were taken aside and our belongings searched to ensure we were not carrying anything from the Soviet Jews to their friends or relatives elsewhere. We had been warned in advance that such an activity was illegal and we were careful not to fall into that trap, not least because it would have endangered the people who gave us the messages.
In our case, the airport police took away our cameras and destroyed almost all of our photos so we returned with few visual records, excepting one roll of film which I had, quite innocently, forgotten to declare. Two years later, during the Moscow Olympics, when hundreds of people were sent to the Soviet Union as part of the sporting crowds, my name remained on a Soviet blacklist and along with a few others, I was refused an entry visa, despite the promise of the Soviet authorities that no one traveling to the Olympics would be refused entry.
Personal memories stand out. I recall my amazement at entering the synagogue in Leningrad on Purim and encountering a group of Hasidic Jews who had maintained their Hasidic dress and customs through the long decades of Soviet rule. For their part, they were equally amazed that a young western Jew, coming from the UK, was able to read the entire Megillah from the scroll that morning in the synagogue.
It was read in a side room, not in the main sanctuary where the KGB had its agents and where it would have been forbidden.
An experience never to be forgotten.
Sharansky was but one of tens of thousands, albeit one of the more famous – along with such people as Ida Nudel, Josef Begun, Vadimir Slepak, Eliyahu Essas and others. But for every one who made the headlines, there were thousands of others who were prepared to lose their jobs, be ridiculed by the authorities and, in some cases, to serve harsh prison sentences in Soviet gulags and prisons. The Iron Curtain has long fallen, hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens – most of whom were not part of the refusenik community – have come to live in Israel, while Jewish life for those remaining in Russia and the ex-Soviet satellites has undergone a renaissance.
As history moves on, the 20-year public struggle for the release of Soviet Jewry will probably be no more than a footnote in the annals of Jewish history, but for many of us, a post-Holocaust generation, it was a critical milestone in the formation and strengthening of our own Jewish identities and in appreciating what it takes for people to express their identities under regimes which seek to crush them, as contrasted with the freedom of the societies within which we grew up.
If there is one point of regret it is the fact that so many of the Soviet Jews who struggled for recognition of their own basic cultural and human rights have not necessarily taken up the same cause here in Israel. One only has to look at the right-wing positions of such prominent figures as Sharansky himself, the new Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, or former foreign minister and right-hand man of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Avigdor Liberman (who was not part of the refusenik movement) to wonder why this should be the case.
The mass influx of immigrants from the countries of the former Soviet Union have had a huge impact on Israeli cultural and economic life. Unlike other sectoral populations, such as the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) or the Arabs, the younger generations, those who came with their parents as young children or those who were born here in Israel, have shed their Russian identity and have sought to become fully integrated within Israeli society.
Russian political parties emerged in the early years, but were rapidly disbanded, as the children of the refusenik generation have sought to shed their ethnic attributes.
When asked about this recent chapter in history, many are not even aware of the struggle for freedom which took place just 30 years ago among their parents’ generation. Most Israeli children have no idea whatsoever what the refusenik movement was, and the names of the refusniks who made the world headlines at the time mean nothing to them. It was one of those moments in history which, if you were there at the time, left an indelible mark on your own impressionable character, but which in the wider march of history was probably no more than a footnote.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University.
The views expressed are his alone.