Candidly Speaking: A triumph of light over darkness

A personal reflection on my involvement in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry, as the Knesset honors former refuseniks and activists from around the world.

SOVIET SCIENTISTS 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Isi Leibler)
(photo credit: Courtesy of Isi Leibler)
Today, the Knesset will host a ceremony honoring former Soviet refuseniks and activists from around the world.
The campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry was the most glorious achievement of the Jewish people since the creation of the state, and demonstrated how a few heroic individuals, facing overwhelming odds, can affect the course of history.
I retain vivid memories of my personal involvement in the struggle which became the dominant feature of my public life for 30 years.
In 1959 as a young graduate visiting Israel, I was recruited by Shaul Avigur, the talented head of Nativ (the then-covert agency dealing with Soviet Jews) who played an enormous role behind the scenes in the formulation of policy during the early years of the state.
From there it was a roller coaster. I became engaged in a campaign which in 1962 led Australia to become the first country to raise the plight of Soviet Jews at the UN.
In 1965, my book Soviet Jews and Human Rights served to ignite a fierce global debate within the ranks of the Jewish Left who until then had slavishly been defending Soviet anti-Semitism.
I also recollect how in 1967, as a young Australian representative to the World Jewish Congress Governing Board in Strasbourg, I received a standing ovation when I accused the charismatic president, Dr. Nahum Goldmann, of shtadlanut for opposing demonstrations and relying exclusively on silent diplomacy.
In 1978, I was placed in a unique situation when my company was designated to handle the travel arrangements of the Australian Olympic team to Moscow, obligating the Soviet authorities to provide me with entry visas.
My visits to “the dark side of the moon” remain the most surrealistic experiences I have ever undergone. In Moscow I would meet daily for a few hours with the Soviet tourist authorities, and despite their rage and thanks to the personal intervention of the Australian prime minister, embassy cars would transport me to the homes of refuseniks and dissidents, making it awkward for the KGB to intervene. Through the assistance of the Australian Foreign Ministry, I also met with senior Soviet officials, with whom I tried to leverage the case for the refuseniks and raised issues of state-sponsored anti-Semitism and discrimination.
During that period, I witnessed firsthand the miracle of a few hundred incredibly heroic Jews defying the world’s most powerful totalitarian regime. I was privileged to befriend many of those remarkable people, most of whom had been nurtured in an atheistic environment and brainwashed into being hostile to all Jewish religious values. In the wake of the Six Day War, these assimilated Jews, many of whom had occupied privileged positions in the Soviet elite, suddenly emerged as Zionist superheroes. Despite marginal chances of success, they placed themselves in great physical danger and were willing to sacrifice everything in a determined effort to renew their Jewish identity.
In a report I prepared for the Soviet Jewry Presidium in 1978, I conveyed this emotional message: “In the midst of stagnation, helplessness and gloom, the incredible refuseniks stand out. Even today, when most of their colleagues have already left, they still represent the salt of the earth, the last great Zionists, the torchbearers of Jewish heroism.
“We spent every moment of our free time with this colony. We talked, we listened, we learned and we cried.
Their faces will continue to haunt us. They are unlike any Jews we have ever met. Once they are out, they change.
“We thought we knew all about them. We read and thought we understood. One cannot. One must be there with them, surrounded by the sullen, ugly anti-Semitic Russian people. They dream of Zion, knowing it not to be a paradise. They live from day to day with young families, uncertain whether next month they will be in Jerusalem or Siberia.
“They have their fellow Jews. They love life. What they so desperately yearn for, we take for granted. I am not an emotional person, but as I write this, the tears well into my eyes.”
I RECOLLECT the late Prof. Alexander Lerner, one of the noblest Jews I was ever privileged to encounter, and who remained a close friend after making aliya. He was a renowned scientist until he applied to immigrate to Israel in October 1971, when he was instantly dismissed from his job and treated as a pariah. I recorded how he tried to cheer me up at the time by saying: “Even if I am not able to realize my dream of returning to my homeland in our lifetime, we are still happy to take part in this biblical event. Don’t be too concerned about us. Please remember we are much happier today than we were prior to our application for immigration – despite the danger. We feel we are involved in dedicating ourselves to our people and our country.”
These extraordinary people changed the course of history and paved the way for more than a million of their kinsmen – most of whom had never heard of them – to follow them to Israel. Yet, after their arrival many of these Zionist heroes, who in the course of their struggle had become household names throughout the Jewish world, were often unable to make ends meet and struggled for decades to even obtain reasonable state pensions.
My visits to Moscow terminated abruptly when Australia joined the boycott of the Moscow Olympics and I was arrested and expelled for “consorting with Soviet citizens denied exit permits to Israel due to having had access to state security secrets.”
I was told I would never again set foot on Soviet soil.
Ironically, it was only seven years later, in 1987, that my wife and I were invited by the Moscow chief rabbi of the KGB-controlled Archipova Synagogue to be his guests over Rosh Hashana and address worshipers from the pulpit. Giving a Zionist address in broken Yiddish to a packed synagogue in the presence of refusenik friends who had previously refused to set foot in this KGB-controlled center was an unforgettable experience. I subsequently learned that I was the first international Jewish leader invited to evaluate the Gorbachev reforms.
That was followed by a series of visits which culminated in the establishment of the first Jewish cultural center since the revolution, named after Solomon Mykhoels, the famous Yiddish poet murdered by Stalin in 1948.
The grand opening and celebrations climaxed with the first Hebrew Song Festival in which Dudu Fisher and Yaffa Yarkoni performed in major Russian concert halls.
The tears streaming down the faces of the Jewish audience remain forever etched in my mind.
In retrospect, a handful of heroic Jews not only changed the course of Jewish history but undoubtedly also made a major contribution toward the collapse of the “Evil Empire.”
This could never have been achieved without the existence of a Jewish state, the united efforts of Jews throughout the world and the support of prominent non-Jews like Senator Henry Jackson, who together orchestrated one of the most successful global protests in history.
With the US being a superpower, American Jews were the critical ingredient. But one must not underestimate the extraordinary contribution of European, Canadian and other Jews, including those from isolated countries like Australia. If ever proof was needed that people power can succeed in overcoming totalitarianism, the struggle on behalf of Soviet Jewry could serve as a role model.
The campaign also highlighted anti-Jewish Jews, the precursors of those who currently demonize Israel. Like their contemporaries who identify with the Islamic foes of the Jewish people, they shamelessly defended Soviet state-sponsored anti-Semitism, and applauded show trials in which Jews were jailed and executed on trumpedup charges.
It was the passion of the grassroots movements which stirred Jewish establishments out of their lethargy. Were it not for students and other nonconformist groups, the American Jewish leadership was inclined to be passive.
The climax was achieved in December 1987, when, after initially resisting calls for demonstrations, public demand forced Jewish leaders to proceed, and more than 250,000 Jews rallied in Washington for the greatest Jewish demonstration in the history of the Diaspora – a turning point in pressuring the Soviets to open the gates.
In retrospect, beyond this glorious moment in the history of the Jewish people, the liberation of Soviet Jewry created a generation of idealists, many of whom still retain leadership roles in Jewish life.
Quite a few, inspired by the courage and dedication of the refuseniks and prisoners of Zion, settled in Israel.
At a time like this, when we recall the miraculous success of this noble movement which so dramatically transformed the Jewish state, we must aim to recapture that spirit and restore the unity which bound us together.
If that were feasible, we would surely be in a much better position to overcome the challenges now confronting us, and possibly once again achieve the seemingly impossible.