Sunday, 1 December 2013

Last Exit NOT to Brooklyn

During the 1970s and 1980s an international campaign was waged to "free" Soviet Jewry. Although previous campaigns by Jewish students and others had supported the rights of Jews in the Soviet Union to cultural expression and freedom from persecution, the new campaign focused on the right to leave the Soviet Union. Campaigners widely used the Biblical-derived slogan "Let My People Go!", and it became increasingly clear that the Jews who made this Exodus were expected to head for Israel.
Various groups and tactics were engaged in this campaign, from social fundraising, and lobbying political leaders to harassment of Soviet cultural tours and even (in the United States) terrorism. Not all those involved realised let alone questioned the politics in the background.

The campaign did succeed in bringing large numbers of Soviet Jews to Israel, not all of whom bcame willing right-wing settlers, and many of whom though welcoming political freedom found the Zionist state far from being a Land of Milk and Honey, or the standards of welfare and social justice they had hoped for. Others have made it to the traditional 'Goldiner Medina' in the United States, or even settled in, of all places, Berlin.

Meanwhile the campaign also led to such unpleasant sights - insofar as people have able or willing to see them - as Russian Jews being forced on to an Israel-bound plabe at Schipol, Amsterdam, some of them in handcuffs (so much for Zionist freedom); or of Russian-origin neo-Nazi skinheads,their parents having presumably posed as Jews, roaming  streets in Petah Tikvah and other places in Israel, assaulting Jews and Muslims.

The Soviet Jewry campaign has passed into history, and so has the Soviet Union - some like to think their activity in the former contributed to the latter's demise. This article from 1990, critically looking at an aspect of the campaign, is one I am now adding to my collection of Historical Passages.

Towards the end of 1988, it became apparent that the United States government was no longer assuring Soviet Jews refugee status and therefore settlement rights in the US, though it was still pressing the USSR to grant more exit visas. Some officials cited budget difficulties; others pointed to human rights improvements in the USSR to argue there was no longer a "well-founded fear of persecution" .

According to Philip Saperia of the long-established Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (BIAS): 'The policy is causing panic in the Soviet Jewish community here in the US and in the Soviet Union" (Guardian 7 December 1988). The Union of Councils for Soviet Jews claim that ~hundreds of Soviet Jews" had been denied refugee status in the past few months, and threatened that the issue would be an embarrassment for the incoming Bush administration.

In recent months, we have seen a spate of publicity given to Russian antisemitic organisations like Pamyat with its threats of pogroms. Some Jewish publicists affect to see escalating antisemitism even in parts of the Soviet Union where it has never existed,and claim widespread murders of Jews have begun. It would be dangerous to play down the threat of Russian fascism and Black Hundredism - and Jewish Socialist was one of the first publications to expose Pamyat. Of course, even if the threat is as serious as made out or genuinely feared (despite the racists' failure in the last election, though things could look different if the economic depression continues to worsen), our answers might still be different.

Present fundraising efforts emphasise panic and flight - in effect, telling Russian Jews they have no future in the country where they have lived for centuries, and for which they made sacrifices and shed blood, and tapping powerful emotional springs in diaspora Jews, prompting them to help the olim (immigrants to Israel) as refugees.

So what about entry to the United States? On 6 September 1989, the ]erusalem Post reported:

"American Jewish organisations that have been pushing hardest to get more Soviet Jews into the US on refugee status are now ready to accept limits on numbers. They are seeking a compromise with the administration that would channel more US aid to Israel to help it cope with an increased Soviet aliya (immigration to Israel)."

The report quoted Micah Naftalin of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews as saying: "We acknowledge that there are finite limits to how many refugees the US can handle." But Naftalin rejected the policy of giving refugee status only to those with close relatives in the United States.

David Harris of the American Jewish Committee said limitations were inevitable, but the Bush administration was hoping to reach an accord with the Jewish community so as to prevent a fight with Congress, which was considering a bill giving all Soviet Jews automatic refugee status.

HIAS president, Ben-'Zion Leuchner, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that "the majority of federations (Jewish communities in each city) will not fight the government on this because of their own financial problems. Some Jewish communities are nearing the point where they can only fund family reunification cases." However, both Leuchter and Harris said the Jewish community would only support the administration in return for concessions.

Enter Shamir, far right

The Israeli government also had a view on Soviet Jews. Speaking to Likud Party veterans, Shamir declared that mass immigration of Soviet Jews was a "miracle", and that it required Israel to be big as well". They could not think of giving up the Occupied Territories. " We need the space to house all the people," he said, to applause (Jerusalem Post, 14 and l9 January 1990). The call for lebensraum has not gone unnoticed abroad, and not least by the Arabs, of course; but after a period of Intifada, and talk in Israel of a so-called "transfer", a more accurate interpretation might have been that  Shamir's Israel desperately needs more Jews if it is to hold the territories.

Shamir had been pressing the US government for some time to stop Soviet Jews entering, and he also wanted the Soviet authorities to permit direct nights to Israel so that people could not drop out en route.An earlier plan had been to have Soviet Jewish migrants fly to Israel via Bucharest, where Ceausescu might cu-operate in stopping dropouts, but circumstances intervened.

Back in 1982 the Jewish Agency bitterly attacked the Austrian government for placing a Russian language information poster at the Vienna transit centre, telling migrants the addresses of Jewish and non-Jewish organisations which would help them go to destinations other than Israel.'The Israeli ambassador in Vienna persuaded the Austrians to remove the poster. The Agency also sought the collaboration of US Jewish organisations in ensuring that only Soviet Jews with "first degree" relatives in the USA should be helped to go there (Jewish Chronicle, 15 January 1982).

Pressure was put on HIAS. and the Joint Distribution Committee to stop them helping Russian Jews. After attacks from the chair of the Jewish Agency, Arye Dultzin, and Anya director, Raphael Kotlowitz, HIAS, which had earlier claimed it was helping the "drop-outs" only to stop them falling into the clutches of the Satmar Hassidim {ultra orthodox anti-Zionists) or non-Jewish organisations, caved in to a plea from Begin. The board of governors of the American Society agreed by 13-3 to accept that it should help only those with close relatives in the US

(Jewish Chronicle, 9 Oct, 6 Nov, II Dec 1981).

Rich Uncle in the States?

Having said they couldn't afford to fund the settlement of Soviet Jews in America as one reason they backed down from challenging Bush over restrictions, American Jewish leaders are now calling upon their communities to cough up the cost of settling the Jews in Israel.

Likud Knesset member Michael Kleiner, chairman of the Knesset Immigration and Absorption Committee, told the Jerusalem Post's Asher Wallflsh on 14 January that Shamir and Pores must go to the US to raise the money for settling Soviet Jews in Israel. Criticising Jewish Agency targets of $1 billion from American Jewry (twice what they'd originally set) as inadequate, Kleiner said Israeli and diaspora Jews should agree to meet the eventual cost, whatever it was. Admitting that it could rise to between $6 and $10 billion, he said that Israel would have to shelve all national and municipal development budgets (hard luck, Hatikvah quarter) and that diaspora Jews must come in 50:50 (Jerusalem Post, 14 Jan 1990) .

At a press conference in New York attended by Natan Sharansky, honouring an announced $20 million housing fund for Soviet Jews in Israel set up by investment banker Joseph Gruss, David Sacks of the United Jewish Appeal said the Appeal might raise its $350 million pledge over one year, instead of three as originally planned. Asked about the overall $500 million, Sacks said: "I can see the possibility of doubling that figure."

Last February the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), at its General Assembly in Miami, pledged that its members would deliver its financial commitment to Israel "whether or not we are successful in raising the full amount", according to executive director Don Felstein, who explained that if necessary federations would have to borrow the money, or cut other budgets. The U}A had meanwhile upped its target, to raise $420 million in one year (Jerusalem Post, 9 February 1990).

Rescue or aliyah?

According to Felstein, some delegates at the CJF's Assembly were concerned about Shamir's remarks on the need for a big Israel". The leadership had managed to calm their fears, saying that less than 1% of Soviet}ews were settling the West Bank.

Felstein said that what had helped convince delegates of the need to deliver the money was a set of articles in the New York Times about the growth of antisemitism in the Soviet Union. There was a general realisation in Miami that American Jewry has a chance in 1990 to do what it failed to do in 1939 (]erusalem Post, 9 Feb 1990).

This last remark is significant. We all know of the Jews who were turned away from America's shores in 1939 and after. In 1981 a commission was set up to examine the way American Jewish organisations had behaved during the years of Nazi mass extermination of the Jews of Europe. Among the questions posed was whether these organisations might not have saved thousands of lives if they had put pressure on the Roosevelt administration. The commission broke up in disarray at the end of 1982 without completing its work (Daily Telegraph, 5 }an 1983).

However, a privately circulated interim report stated: "In retrospect, one incontrovertible fact stands out above all others: in the face of Hitler's total war of extermination against the Jews of Europe, the Jewish leadership in America at no stage decided to proclaim total mobilisation for rescue" (New York Herald Tribune, 5 }an 1983) .

Whether pressure on Roosevelt might have worked, we can only guess. The American Jewish community did not feel so confident then. There was fear that America's own antisemites would use the prospect of mass Jewish immigration to stir up hatred against those already there. Later, American Jews would vent their feelings on Britain for restricting entry to Palestine. Leon Uris could write Exodus and Hollywood make the movie.

One can understand the remark about not repeating 1939, but have Don Felstein or the Jewish Federation read the history properly? Weren't guilt pangs over bowing down to the antisemites during the War assuaged by listening to other arguments?

"If Jews will have to choose between the refugees, saving Jews from concentration camps and assisting a national museum in Palestine, mercy will have the upper hand and the whole energy of the people will be channeled into saving Jews from various countries. Zionism will be struck off the agenda . . . If we allow a separation between the refugee problem and the Palestine problem we are risking the existence of Zionism," wrote David Ben Gurion in a letter to  the Zionist Executive in  1938, concerned lest other territories be found to take Jewish refugees (The Other Israel by Arie Bober, published by Matzpen).

The Goldberg commission's report noted that established Zionist organisations were "riveted to post-war plans" for a Jewish state and this was another reason not to demand entry for Jews to America. And today?

"Could Israel morally survive the appearance of 500,000 Jewish refugees heading for another galut(diaspora) were the gates of the USSR opened?" asked Mikhail Agursky and Alexander Libin, in the ]erusalem Post (6 October 1982). "The drop out phenomenon corrupted and demoralised Soviet Jewry", they claimed. The Zionist writers rejected any move to grant refugee status to Soviet Jews wishing to enter America.

More recently, Isi Leibler, vice-president of the World Jewish Congress and a leading Zionist figure in Australia (doubtless another over-populated little country that couldn't possibly find room for more }ews), said; 'The Soviet Jewry movement is not a travel agency, and transfer of one diaspora to another, even from a Communist society to a democracy, is not a pressing national Jewish objective. This is especially true if the overwhelming majority of Jews wanting to leave - currently over 90% - do not want to go to Israel."

Double bind

One problem with these arguments is that the Soviet Union today, whatever it is, is not Germany in 1939.Far from having been systematically persecuted and driven from public life as German  Jews were by state policy from 1933 on (and more especially from 1938), Soviet Jews are enjoying a new flowering of cultural and political freedom. The antisemites are menacing, but not yet much  more. There is violence, but not much greater than in, say, the United States (or, in a different way, in Israel). The Russian Nazi groups'votes were derisory.

This  is not to recommend complacency but to suggest that antisemitism in Russia can be fought and beaten. But in order to squeeze huge sums out of Jewish communities already facing cash  problems, the Zionist movement has had to hype up the Russian situation to make it sound as though Auschwitz is round the comer. "Shadow Of The New Nazis" screamed the headline to an article by Jane Moonman of BIPAC (Jewish Chronicle, 9 Dec 1988). "Never Again 1939" is the kind of sentiment being tapped into in the States.

The snag is, if people really believe it's that bad, mightn't they decide that what's needed is rescue rather than aliyah to Israel? Mightn't they press for open doors and refugee status?

On 15 February, Israel's Absorption Minister, Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, shocked Zionist opinion by naively declaring; "Should the escape route of the Soviet Jews lead them to Western Europe or the United States, this is better than they they should stay in the Soviet Union." (Peretz is a member of the non Zionist orthodox Shas Party.) Shamir promptly told the Israeli press: 'There is no need to take note of the remarks made by Absorption Minister Yitzhak Peretz" (Ha'areiz, 16 Jan 1990).

Michael Kleiner, of the Knesset' s Immigration and Absorption Committee, complained that Peretz's remarks would be used by "HIAS officials, who don't care about the well-being of the Jews", but merely wish to keep going as an organisation by "disseminating untruthful propaganda about Israel and about the condition of Soviet Jewry . Kleiner went on to claim the Absorption Minister had "fallen victim to the propaganda and fear-spreading campaign conducted by vested interests who are striving to reopen the gates of the United States to Jewish immigrants" (Ha'aretz, 15 Feb 1990).

Jewish Agency chairman, Simha Dinitz, had revealed on 11 February that the Agency had approached American Jewish leaders some weeks before to ask them to stop HIAS opening an office in Moscow which might help Jews going to America and "sabotage immigration to Israel".

On 18 February, Michael Kleiner proclaimed; 'This cancerous growth called HIAS must be totally eradicated." Claiming that HIAS lobbying had persuaded the US government to grant 8,000 more refugee-entry permits to Soviet Jews, Kleiner accused the Jewish organisation of doing this just to maintain 'bloated bureaucracy and corrupt officials".

Furthermore, he accused; 'HIAS is preparing the ground for an upsurge of antisemitism in the United States," because, by "luring Jews who really want to settle in Israel to go to America instead," it was leading to the day when American Jewry would be accused of stealing the places of others" (]erusalem Post, 19 Feb 1990).

So how did the American Jews respond to this belligerent language and the threatening suggestion that Jews are to blame for a rise in antisemitism? Ben Zion Leuchner of HIAS denied that his organisation had asked the US to increase its ceiling on Jewish refugees. He pointed out that HIAS was actually reducing staff. He denied that it sought to persuade anyone to go to America: "To the contrary, our staff members are instructed to tell the relatives of Soviet Jews that the quickest way for their family to be resettled in freedom is to go to Israel" (]erusalem Post, 4 March 1990).

Martin Kraar, of the North American Council of Jewish Federations, reassured Kleiner that the 8,000 Jews who were being assisted had already been allowed for in October and that there was no intention of increasing the entry quota further. He further assured Kleiner that his Council would be keeping an eye on HIAS to "ensure it didn' t divert Soviet Jews to any other destination save Israel."

So once again language that would be rightly denounced as antisemitic on the lips of others is considered acceptable from Israeli leaders. And once again diaspora Jewish leaders kowtow to Israeli leaders, protesting their innocence of any charge that they are making demands on their own government to assist fellow Jews find freedom! No longer are they demanding: "Let My People Go," but: "Don't Let My People In"!

A useful memorandum on Soviet Jewish migration has
been produced by the Committee to Open Borders. Send a
large sae to Jewish Socialist, BM3725, London WCIN
3XX, for a copy.


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