On Return to Ussr, Ex-refusenik Finds Hope for Jewish Life
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On Return to Ussr, Ex-refusenik Finds Hope for Jewish Life

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Alex Goldfarb says the circumstances of his return to Moscow were indeed remarkable, but not nearly as remarkable as what he found there.

During a virtually unprecedented eight-day visit in the Soviet Union, the former refusenik and current Israeli citizen was surprised to find signs of optimism among Jews who are, in his words, “in the system.”

In a telephone interview Sunday, Goldfarb spoke of the large number of Soviet Jews who, having no immediate plans to emigrate, believe Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, or openness, may allow them to identify historically, culturally and politically as Jews, without the hostility or oppression of the past.

It was glasnost, of course, that allowed Goldfarb, once one of the most vocal and officially disliked Jewish dissidents, to travel back to Moscow after 12 years to visit with his sister Olga. Although a growing number of former Soviet citizens have been allowed back for visits, Goldfarb believes he is the first holder of an Israeli passport to be allowed to do so.


Arriving in Moscow on Oct. 12, Goldfarb, a professor of microbiology at Columbia University, found a familiar mix of optimism and despair among refuseniks. News that Ida Nudel and Vladimir and Maria Slepak were to be granted exit visas was overshadowed by awareness of harsh restrictions, established in January, that seem to make Jewish emigration even more difficult.

What he had not expected were signs of “a certain promise of health within unofficial Jewish life.” Among the Jews he visited were those, like scientist Mikhail Tchlenov and his daughter Irene Shapiro, a law student and Hebrew teacher, who are testing the limits of glasnost by openly protesting anti-Semitism and by organizing to promote authentic Jewish culture.

Although no one can provide exact numbers, said Goldfarb, movements like theirs represent the feelings of a clear majority of the Soviet Union’s Jews. Of the country’s 1.9 million Jews, Goldfarb estimates that fewer than 10 percent have a desire to emigrate.

“Although they recognize Israel as the spiritual and cultural center of Judaism, these people are trying to test the limits of glasnost outside the emigration movement,” said Goldfarb. “They see their role as getting some form of Jewish life acceptable by the rules of glasnost.”


Goldfarb said he spoke with a wide spectrum of both Jewish and non-Jewish Soviets during his week in Moscow, including members of three distinct Jewish cultural movements. Their efforts include recent demonstrations against anti-Semitism and in memory of those killed at Babi Yar, gatherings at a small Jewish “library” and “community center” in the home of a Col. Sokol and the establishment of the Moscow Jewish Cultural Association.

During an evening at Sokol’s “library,” Goldfarb discussed the current political climate with Jewish intellectuals, American visitors and current refuseniks, including Iosif Begun.

They find encouragement, said Goldfarb, in signs like a relaxation in university admission policies toward Jews and the reactions of the Soviet authorities to openly “ethnic” activity. Although Soviet police broke up the recent anti-Semitism demonstration, the leaders of the protest were not arrested. Goldfarb remembers fellow dissidents being given sentences of five and seven years for participating in similar demonstrations in the 1970s.

In addition, articles have been appearing in the Soviet press casting Jews in a positive light, including two Jewish journalists in the Ukraine who were depicted as being arbitrarily persecuted by the local KGB earlier this year.

Finally, while the number of applications for exit visas has dropped since January, the treatment of those applying has been said to be improving. Goldfarb said applying for a visa does not automatically result in surveillance, harrassment or the loss of a job.

But even while emigration is not the highest priority among many of the Jews Goldfarb met with, it is seen as the option of last resort, he said, should their movement be crushed.

Jews “in the system” harbor no illusions about the Soviet bureaucracy and how much openness it will tolerate. They have no intention that their budding organizations become Soviet “showpieces” and vehicles for propaganda, as they consider Moscow’s Great Synagogue and various official Yiddish newspapers to be.


And they still find evidence of strong anti-Semitic sentiments prevailing within the Communist Party apparatus, and are concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism at the grass-roots level. That rise is embodied by Pamyat, a far-right movement that Goldfarb said claims the highest membership among the alternative organizations that have sprung up in the wake of glasnost. Pamyat has risen to prominence on an anti-foreigner platform that includes fears of a “world Zionist conspiracy.”

Ironically, members of organizations like the Moscow Jewish Cultural Association owe their optimism to the same relative tolerance that has allowed Pamyat — and groups as diverse as Ukrainian Catholics, punk rockers and abstract artists — to come forward. “These are Jews, but not political Zionists. The authorities do not know what to do with them,” said Goldfarb.

The presence of a culturally-aware Jewish community that does not list emigration as a first priority proposes new questions for Soviet Jewry movements in the United States and elsewhere, said Goldfarb.

“Without taking the emigration issue off the agenda, there should be a very furious political effort to insist that there…be some sort of Jewish life in the Soviet Union,” he said.

Goldfarb said that groups outside the Soviet Union can probe the limits of glasnost by attempting to pass money or materiel to the Jewish cultural movement, or by establishing a Jewish organizational presence — an office or library — in the Soviet Union itself.

Goldfarb said he recognizes that a viable Soviet Jewish movement may represent wishful thinking. “My view is very skeptical,” he said. “But at the moment, it exists. At this moment, it is possible. And I think it is our duty to support these people.”

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