John Cooper

Women and students led the way in the fight for Soviet Jewry

It’s a story with many different strands, as well as huge contemporary relevance, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine

May 24, 2023 14:43

Five years ago, I picked up a book dealing mainly with the campaign by American Jews to allow Soviet Jews to emigrate at the height of the Cold War. I found it so absorbing that I wondered whether there was a similar account chronicling the activities of British Jews. Like so many others I had been a foot soldier in the British campaign, participating in demonstrations against Russian ballet companies, writing letters to local newspapers and telephoning trapped Soviet Jewish families waiting to leave. There seemed to be a gap in the literature, so I plunged in.

But as I was finishing my own research, the invasion of the Ukraine ordered by Putin and his minions seemed to catch up with past history and I sensed that the final chapter of the long history of the Jews in Russia was being written, as they were beginning to feel increasingly unwelcome under an authoritarian regime. Three million or more Jews had lived in Ukraine and the contiguous areas of what became Poland during the early 20th century. Between 1918 and 1921, at least 120,000 Jews were murdered in pogroms in this area. A couple of decades later Jews were concentrated in Poland, the western Soviet Union, Lithuania and Latvia. Ukraine had been re-conquered and incorporated into the Soviet Union, after a fierce war. Fears expressed in the New York Times in 1919 that six million Jews were in danger of being exterminated became reality.

To put the situation of the Soviet Jews into context, I focused on the years of Stalin’s ascendancy and Khrushchev’s tenure, when synagogues were closed, the teaching of Jewish culture and religion was extinguished and the commemoration of the Holocaust was forbidden. Soviet Jews felt isolated and forgotten.

At this point, to my surprise, the Israeli government, as early as 1952, set up a secret organisation, the Lishka, for the ingathering of the remnants of the East European masses, whose numbers it hoped would help to consolidate their new state. Hence the Israelis approached Soviet Jews, supplying them with prayer books and literature and encouraging them to renew their Jewish identity and apply to emigrate — but then the Israelis discovered that Western Jews were on the whole blissfully unaware of the situation of Soviet Jewry and apathetic about taking action on their behalf. So this had to be remedied by approaching interested individuals.

The Israelis were aided by two important structural changes in post-War Western society: the huge expansion of the universities and the swelling of student numbers; and what became known as second-wave feminism. The majority of Jewish students shared the same left-wing causes as their Gentile colleagues, such as opposition to the Vietnam War, the bomb and apartheid in South Africa and they adopted many of the same campaigning tactics; and the general student body felt that the easing of restrictions on Soviet Jews was an attractive cause that they were willing to support, by sometimes joining in demonstrations.

The American Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry was formed in 1964, followed by the British Jewish organisation in January 1966. A few months later there was a march from Hyde Park to the Soviet Embassy led by Gideon Hausmann and Michael Hunter. They were received by two Second Secretaries and engaged in a two-hour debate on the condition of Soviet Jews. A photograph of the student leaders appeared in The Times, the first occasion on which the subject had received widespread publicity.

In June 1967, the Six Day War broke out, resulting in a wave of euphoria to spread among the Jewish diaspora, which also revitalised Soviet Jewry, as the Soviet authorities at first spread mendacious tales of sweeping Arab victories. Despairing of the Soviet authorities granting them exit permits, a group of 11 persons tried to hijack an aircraft, which they planned to fly to safety. But they were ensnared by the Soviet secret police. At the first Leningrad trial in December 1970, Edward Kuznetsov and Mark Dymshits were sentenced to death, leading to campaigns to have their sentences reduced.

Colin Shindler organised a meeting at the Chelsea Town Hall addressed by, among others, Gideon Hausner, the prosecutor of Eichmann, as the Board of Deputies could not act quickly. The Board relied on secret diplomacy with the Soviet embassy, though their overtures were frequently rebuffed. However, the Israelis became disillusioned with the students, who were not always available to help, and then an incident occurred at the Soviet consulate in London, causing a diplomatic contretemps.

The publication of Betty Friedan’s critique The Feminine Mystique (1963), kick-started the second-wave feminist movement in the United States and later across the Atlantic in Britain. After an inconclusive confrontation with the Chief Rabbi over Soviet Jewry, Barbara Oberman was stirred to learn the story of Raiza Palatnik, who had been incarcerated for wishing to leave Russia. Outraged, Oberman made more than 100 telephone calls to friends to stage a hunger-strike outside the Soviet embassy on May Day 1971 on her behalf. A few stalwarts assembled and from these beginnings the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry — “The 35s”developed. Oberman’s name was found among the correspondence seized by Soviet security officials and she was replaced as leader by Doreen Gainsford. The latter was the publicity officer for a fashion house, who, like many students, was incensed that their parents’ generation had failed to do enough to save the victims of the Holocaust. She also believed that women had the right to participate in communal politics. She cultivated her ties to the Labour leadership , and Margaret Thatcher, the Opposition leader, educating them about the problems of Soviet Jewry; and arousing the general public with a series of gimmicks that attracted the attention of the media.

At this point in the 1970s, Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader, wanted the Western powers to recognise the post-War boundaries of his empire, as it had absorbed much new territory. A series of meetings of the Conference on Cooperation and Security in Europe culminated in the signing of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975. In return, the Western powers demanded a greater flow of information, more cultural and educational exchanges and human rights, including the right to emigrate.

The Women’s Campaign and its allies lobbied friendly governments on the Continent to strengthen the human- rights clauses, provoking the ire of the Board of Deputies, which sensed that an exclusively male sphere of influence was being infringed. A new leadership arose among the 35s of Rita Eker and Margaret Rigal, who developed a warm friendship with Margaret Thatcher as prime minister; and their organisation helped to keep up the pressure in the lean years until the late 1980s, when there was a significant shift in the international political climate.

They fostered close relations with Jewish families in the Soviet Union by sending them a constant succession of visitors to assess their needs, and by aiding them in multiple ways.
To control the boisterous activities of the students and women, the Board of Deputies set up the National Council for Soviet Jewry, though its success in this venture was limited. Together with the National Council, the women organised a host of activities to foster the revival of Jewish cultural activities in the Soviet Union.

With Gorbachev’s accession to power in 1985, nothing seemed to change until a campaign led by American Jewry, the stellar historian Martin Gilbert and the women’s movement resulted in Anatoly Shcharansky’s release. What made Gorbachev change his mind and allow almost two million Soviet Jews to migrate, a momentous event in Jewish history? Was it the Chernobyl nuclear explosion and the financial costs of rectifying it? Was it Gorbachev’s dithering over switching to a market economy and the necessity for Western loans? Was it the need to retain highly trained cadres of Jewish trained technocrats — or were they becoming superfluous? Was it the sudden prominence of human rights? Was it the pressure of the international campaign for the release of Soviet Jewry and what part did the British component play in this struggle? These and other questions I try to answer in my book. With the pogroms of 1918-21, the Holocaust, the Soviet Jewry campaign and emigration — and now the Russian invasion and more emigration — Jews are vanishing from a vast region.

‘The British Campaign for Soviet Jewry 1966-1991: Human Right and Exit Permits’ by John Cooper is published by i2i Publishing

May 24, 2023 14:43

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