Eyewitnesses Paint Gloomy Picture of Status of Jews in Soviet Union
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Eyewitnesses Paint Gloomy Picture of Status of Jews in Soviet Union

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A gloomy picture of a beleagured Soviet Jewish community struggling vainly for cultural and religious survival emerged this weekend at a public hearing on the status of the 3, 000, 000 Jews of the USSR. Experts and eyewitnesses told of a government campaign aimed at eliminating the separate religious and cultural identity of Soviet Jewry.

Bayard Rustin, Negro rights leader, served as chairman of a panel of six “jurors” who took testimony and examined witnesses all day Friday. Members of the panel included: Dr. John C. Bennett, president, Union Theological Seminary; Rev. George B. Ford, pastor emeritus, Corpus Christi Church; Samuel Fishman, United Automobile Workers; Telford Taylor, professor of law, Columbia University; and Norman Thomas, veteran Socialist leader.

The hearing was conducted by an Ad Hoc Commission on Soviet Jews, formed under the aegis of the Conference on the Status of Soviet Jews, comprising 24 Jewish organizations in the United States. In a study distributed at the hearing, the Ad Hoc Commission stated that the USSR embarked on a new and subtler campaign against Passover as part of its drive to destroy the cultural and religious identity of Soviet Jewry. The Commission declared that world opinion has forced the Soviet leadership to abandon its virulent attacks against Passover celebrations and launch instead a “more refined drive to reduce the scope of Passover from the broadly historic to the narrowly ritualistic.”

According to the Commission, the Soviet Governments recent lifting of the ban on matzoh-baking is “far from nationwide, ” with the result that “perhaps the majority of Soviet Russia’s Jews remain unaffected by the change. ” Matzoh production, the Commission stated, is restricted to the synagogue, “thus depriving the great number of unreligious and younger generation Jews of any tangible means of observing the holiday. Even in the synagogues the procedure for obtaining matzoh is inefficient and demeaning: Jews seeking matzoh must bring their own flour to the synagogue and register personally for matzoh — a registration that is then sent to the Soviet police.”


Rabbi Israel Miller, president of the Rabbinical Council of America, who spoke from the pulpit of the Moscow synagogue last summer, told the hearing that the world Jewish community “stood as one” in seeking to alleviate the plight of Soviet Jewry. He listed four major requests designed to end the “spiritual suffocation” of Soviet Jewish life. He called on the Soviet Government to grant the Jews:

1) Organized religious life, like other religions; 2) organized national life, like other nationalities; 3) to conduct an editorial campaign against anti-Semitism on radio and television and in newspapers; and, 4) to permit reunion of families separated by war and persecution, through granting of permission to emigrate abroad.”

Dr. Eric Goldhagen, director of the Institute of East European Jewish Affairs at Brandeis University, told the tribunal that the “extinction” of organized Jewish life in the Soviet Union was a “certainty” if the present policies of the Soviet Government continued. “In 10 or 15 years, ” he predicted, “it will be difficult to find within the Soviet Union a man capable of performing a Jewish religious burial ceremony, a Jewish wedding or a bar mitzvah. ” He said there were only 40 or 50 rabbis still living in the USSR, that their average age was 65, and that there was no theological school to train young rabbis in the Soviet Union. “The Jews of the Soviet Union –the second largest Jewish community in the world –have been reduced by 50 years of Soviet rule to a state of cultural and religious dedication without parallel among the religious and ethnic minorities of the Soviet Union,” he declared.

One eyewitness — the Rev. Thurston Davis, editor of the Jesuit weekly, America, Who returned from an inspection survey of religious liberty in the USSR earlier this year –said that Jews and Roman Catholics living in the Soviet Union faced “special difficulties” because of their “outside connections as members of an international group of believers, ” He urged Catholics to pray for the survival of Judaism in Soviet Russia and described the Jews he met there as “ridden with fear.”

Judd L. Teller, author, one of the six expert witnesses who testified before the panel, said the Soviet Jew was caught in a kind of “squeeze play between the top Moscow bureaucracy, which coerces him to assimilate, and the middle bureaucracy of the ethnic republics, including the Great Russians, which shuts off his avenues to assimilation. ” Former Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Mr. Teller said, “modified, but never repudiated, even the worst features of Stalin’s anti-Jewish policy. His own anti-Semitism was deep and personal; and while his political eclipse has removed his personal anti-Semitism as a factor in Soviet policy toward Jews, his other arguments continue to inhibit a revision of Soviet policy. ” He was critical of the emphasis of American protests against Soviet anti-Semitism, which he said had put too much stress on religious discrimination.

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