December 10: The many saviors of Soviet Jewry

December 11 The many sa

The many saviors of Soviet Jewry Sir, - As one of the initiators of the "worldwide" campaign for Soviet Jewry, I must comment on Sheila Silver's article "The real saviors of Soviet Jewry" (December 4). I was interested by her stirring account of the roles of Yona Yahav, Zvi Raviv and Avi Plaskow in prodding prime minister Golda Meir to publicly and officially proclaim for the first time the State of Israel's deep concern about the plight of Soviet Jewry. I had not known of this, and the young students' campaign of 1969 will now hopefully be recorded in the history of the movement. It should also be noted that a few weeks earlier, the government had received a dramatic Tisha Be'av appeal from 18 Soviet Georgian Jews, and we have always believed that this was a major trigger for Golda. It was characteristic of the Soviet Jewry movement that the ferment on behalf of Soviet Jews seemed to emerge all over the world, almost independently. I did not know about Yahav and Raviv, and they did not know about me, though my 1964 New York creation the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) received plenty of media attention during the 1960s. Dr. Herbert Caron and Dr. Louis Rosenblum founded the Cleveland Council on Soviet Anti-Semitism in October 1963, and Rosenblum went on to form the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews (UCSJ) in 1970. The characteristic feature of SSSJ and UCSJ was that they were at odds with the American Jewish leadership, in that they called for massive grassroots pressure on Washington to intervene more strongly with the Kremlin to protect and rescue Soviet Jewry. They were bitterly resented by the American Jewish leadership from the 1960s on. I introduced the slogan "Save Soviet Jewry" and put it on a button together with a shofar. The shofar represented the call to conscience, the call to action, and the hope for the liberation of Soviet Jewry; 1964-66 were SSSJ's most heroic years, and I call them the Shofar Period. Our public events and stream of educational materials allowed us to mobilize a critical mass of New York Jews in those early years. Except for colorful public events on the West Coast, the UCSJ concentrated more on effective grassroots politicking. There has been much confusion about the role played by the government of Israel in relation to the world campaign. I have to admit that when I visited Israel during those years, I was startled by the quiet on the public front, compared with the noise being made in the US, the UK (Michael Sherbourne, Barbara Oberman and Doreen Gainsford), Canada (Genya Intrator), Australia (Isi Leibler) and elsewhere. Clearly Israel was reluctant to jeopardize its Moscow embassy, which provided a crucial "on the spot" lifeline to Soviet Jews. But after the death of Stalin in 1952, there was a behind-the-scenes effort to develop contacts with the Jews of the USSR, followed by the initiation of enormously important covert campaigns in the West to arouse concerns among liberal and left-wing elements that the Soviets were anxious to keep pro-Moscow. Among those who worked on these campaigns were men such as Benyamin Eliav, Shaul Avigur, Nehemia Levanon and Meir Rosenne. I had extensive contacts with the last two, and from 1964 to 1967, the foundational period of the public Soviet Jewry movement, I received ardent moral support, especially from Dr. Rosenne (later to become Israel's ambassador to France and then to the US). He and Dr. Moshe Decter (whose early scholarly researches on Soviet Jewry beginning in the 1950s laid the scholarly foundation for the American campaign) never attempted to push me or influence me, as some later officials did. (We joked about their attempts to "kontroll" US Jewry.) They were just delighted and thrilled to see what I was doing, and tried very hard to diminish rampant establishment hostility toward me. Levanon was respectful and friendly. I recall in the autumn of 1970, when numerous reports had been revealing that the Soviets were preparing a great Jewish trial, Levanon intervened frantically with American Jewish leadership for action and got nowhere. He came to me and said unhappily, "I can't do any more! It's up to you now, Birnbaum!" Later, relations became much more complicated with a special animus against the Union of Councils. Many Israeli officials felt that they should control the movement, and this was constantly being challenged by the grassroots people. DR. JACOB BIRNBAUM Founder and director, Center for Russian Jewry with Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry New York Sir, - In her article applauding the activities of Israeli student leaders in May 1969, Sheila Silver says that they "began a movement" and influenced prime minister Golda Meir to take action. In fact, the student campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry began much earlier, back in the early 1960s - well before the Six Day War of 1967. By 1969, the protest movement was well established. The very first demonstration in the UK took place in May 1966, organized by a group of students, including the undersigned, when we took part in a two-and-a-half-hour debate with officials in the Soviet Embassy, who refused to accept a petition signed by 5,000 students! This was the first time that the issue of Soviet Jewry received national media coverage, including the front page of The Times, followed by a campaign of letters to the press, motions in Parliament, and many more demonstrations. This, in turn, followed the activities of Nativ, which began in the late 1950s in the USA and Europe. These included:
  • International conference in Paris, September 15, 1960, with the participation of prominent people such as Martin Buber, Muriel Spark, Lord Vansittart and Bishop Pike;
  • Demonstrations in front of Soviet Embassies in Washington, Paris and the Soviet delegation to the UN in New York, starting in 1962;
  • Vigil in Washington in 1965 attended by more than 10,000 people. These are just some of many examples. At the time, these activities were conducted clandestinely, and it is only recently that the fact that the activities were organized and paid for by the Israeli government has been disclosed publicly. It is simply not true that Israel "did nothing" before 1969. It is regrettable that what successive Israel governments did to save Soviet Jews should be forgotten. The full story of the struggle has not yet been published. No one wants to detract from the excellent work carried out by the Israeli students in 1969, but those who began these activities must be given due credit. However, if you want to allocate credit to those who really began these activities, you have to go back in time a few years. We were there (at different times) and are proud to have played our part in initiating the campaign which, as you say, "is one of the greatest success stories of our time." MEIR ROSENNE Former Israeli ambassador to USA, and GORDON HAUSMANN Founder and first chair, Universities Committee for Soviet Jewry London Sir, - I read with great interest Sheila Silver's article, in which she writes that Yona Yahav and Zvi Raviv deserve credit for being the first ones who publicly raised the plight of Soviet Jewry. The year - 1969. Yahav's and Raviv's considerable contributions notwithstanding, I was a delegate of Maccabi Israel to the Jewish Youth World Congress in Jerusalem in 1963, and our committee dealt with the situation of Jews all over the world. In that capacity, I succeeded in passing the first-ever public decision by an official Jewish organization which denounced the Soviet Union for its continuous oppression against Jews in Russia. When I submitted the proposition, I received great help and support from members of the voluntary organization Shalach et Ami (Let My People Go), who tried to raise public awareness even before that year. I was fortunate to serve as their porte-parole in that congress. It's worth noting that the major opposition to the said resolution came from the Israeli delegates of the left-wing youth movements. Their main speaker is currently one of the leading intellectuals of the kibbutz movements. In the article, Ms. Silver correctly states that "there are many people throughout the world who worked with zeal and devotion to bring the plight of Soviet Jews to the public notice - too many to mention." I believe that at least one other person should be mentioned: Rabbi Meir Kahane. His fight against the Russian authorities during the '60s cannot and should not go unnoticed. As a student in New York at that time, I was a witness to his successful daily actions, which were fully covered by the papers there and elsewhere. HARAN A. FAINSTEIN Rehovot Sir, - There were many real saviors of Soviet Jewry. What about the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, or the Jackson-Vanik amendment introduced in Congress by Sen. Henry Jackson and Rep. Charles Vanik, making "most favored nation" treatment for the USSR dependent on its record in releasing the Jews? It is true that for a long time, the Israeli government was cautious about public campaigns, lest the Soviets take revenge on the Jews there, but the three students cannot claim exclusivity even in changing this. The letter appealing to Meir from the Jewish families in Georgia had no less of an effect. YITZHAK HEIMOWITZ Tel Aviv Sir, - It is unfortunate that Zvi Raviv's wife, Sheila Silver, misrepresents the chronicles of the Soviet Jewry struggle. To write that only after prime minister Golda Meir had been pressured by students to go public, "the campaign went worldwide and communities and organizations began to pressure the Soviet government," is a historical inaccuracy. The Israeli students' rally 40 years ago made a major contribution to the struggle for Soviet Jewry. However, in no way did it cause the government, or even the Jewish Agency, "to initiate the worldwide campaign for Soviet Jewry." That campaign had been in existence as an activist struggle of sit-ins, demonstrations, mass rallies, writing campaigns, smuggling in literature to Russia and much more, since May 1, 1964, when some 1,500 Jewish students - myself among them - marched in Manhattan in front of the Russian UN Delegation offices under the banner of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. That Zvi Raviv and others were unaware of the problem is indeed indicative of the low-key policies the Israeli government so mistakenly pursued then. Jewish youth in the United States had met Dov Sperling a year earlier and been galvanized to take to the streets. Geula Cohen spoke at Madison Square Garden's Felt Forum in front of thousands to influence us. Shlomo Carlebach had already performed his "Am Yisrael Hai." Yes, the Israeli genesis "deserves recognition" - and so does the worldwide genesis of 1964. YISRAEL MEDAD Shiloh Editor's note: Sheila Silver-Raviv's piece "The real saviors of Soviet Jewry" was about grassroots efforts made inside Israel to free the Soviet Jews. The Jerusalem Post Magazine regrets the confusion. Demystifying the demystifiers Sir, - Shira Twersky-Cassel argues ("Demystify all the way!," Letters, December 4) that according to Rabbi Kook, the intrinsic metaphysical connection between the Jewish People and the Land of Israel necessitates the return of the Jewish people, and thus "our return to the Land of Israel has in fact been defined by our history." Based upon this idea, Ms. Twersky-Cassel disputes my statement that "Rabbi Kook believed that the return to the Land of Israel constituted a radical departure from Jewish history." However, I believe that Ms. Twersky-Cassel has misinterpreted my point. As she correctly surmises, Rabbi Kook (following his predecessors Rabbi Yehuda Halevy and the Maharal of Prague) does view the exile of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel as an abnormal situation that must certainly be rectified as part of the process of redemption. Thus the return to Israel in fact marks a radical departure from 2,000 years of abnormal Jewish exilic history and the return to the proper situation of the Jewish people dwelling in their own land. It was to this new reality that I referred. RABBI ZVI LESHEM Efrat