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Russian aliyah: The massive influx from the former Soviet Union brought ideological challenges — but art offered a way to reach out
The struggle for the freedom of Soviet Jewry was an exact continuation of the story of Exodus, which every Jew is commanded to tell his or her children at Seder night. We had an entire people fighting for freedom and finding their Jewish identity in this common cause. And by creating this hole in the Iron Curtain, we helped bring down the Soviet empire and changed the world. This was tikkun olam in its widest sense. Sometimes I wonder how easily people have forgotten that experience. It might have had something to do with the hardships experienced by the million olim who arrived after the Iron Curtain came down. I remember Israelis asking me the whole time: “But we thought this was an ideological aliyah?” They thought people would not complain, but even in the desert after Exodus, the Children of Israel were always complaining to Moses. I always believed that a Jew who wants to participate in the history and culture of the Jewish people should come and live in Israel, but I was against the attempts being made to forbid Soviet Jews to emigrate to other countries besides Israel. I refused to take part in this denial of the Diaspora. I believed that we had to try and encourage people to come by making Israel more attractive. That was one of the reasons we set up the Zionist Forum. In late 1990, at the height of the great aliyah wave from the Soviet Union, I was contacted by a group of old Jewish friends from Moscow: two theatre directors and two actors. Before my arrest and trial, I used to enjoy going to the theatre, for the plays and because it was a good place to meet dissidents. They wanted to make aliyah, but the only thing they could do was work on the stage; did I think that, now that so many Russian Jews had arrived in Israel, we could set up a theatre in Russian? I thought it was a fantastic idea, a way to send a message to the intellectual elite that Israel was not just a shelter for Jews, but could also be a cultural centre. I set up meetings with the Israeli theatre establishment and the Culture Ministry. The answer from both sides was the same: we are never going to permit such an anti-Zionist act. Everyone who comes to live in Israel must learn Hebrew and leave behind his old culture, they warned me. “We never allowed plays in another language,” they said. “You can forget about any government funding.” But I was hooked on the idea, so I went to the other Zionist capital, New York, and managed to raise £25,000 to finance six Russian theatre performances in Israel. The company arrived in Israel just in time for the Gulf War, but despite the Scud attacks, each performance was a sell-out. They got a building from the Tel Aviv Municipality but there was still no money for a permanent company. The first producer, Slava Maltsev, had nowhere to live and he ended up sleeping at the offices of the Zionist Forum. We decided to lend them £100,000 for the first year of production, which was not an easy decision to make, since the Forum’s entire annual budget was £2m and this was not exactly the classic Zionist venture. The Gesher Theatre very quickly became a huge success. Today, when school-children are brought from all over the country to Gesher, where actors perform in plays in both Russian and Hebrew, nobody remembers that this was once seen as an anti-Zionist idea.