Behind the Headlines; Demise of Soviet Union Doesn’t Mean Work of Soviet Jewry Movement is Done
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Behind the Headlines; Demise of Soviet Union Doesn’t Mean Work of Soviet Jewry Movement is Done

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Twenty years after the National Conference on Soviet Jewry began, the organization has no plans to follow the Soviet Union into oblivion.

On the contrary: The collapse of the central government means that what was called the Soviet Jewry movement must open channels with each of the 15 former Soviet republics.

“It is more time-consuming and requires more personnel, at a time when the established Jewish community has thought the problem basically resolved,” said Shoshana Cardin, who chairs the National Conference, the central coordinating body for American Jewish organizations and communications on the issue.

The National Conference had already started that route, even before Russian President Boris Yeltsin organized the Commonwealth of Independent States and placed the tombstone on Soviet history and Mikhail Gorbachev’s political career.

In October, Cardin met with Ukraine President Leonid Kravchuk, in addition to Gorbachev.

As the National Conference embarks on a new phase in the movement, the American activists have allies: the increasingly organized local Jewish communities in the independent republics.

“Now we ask people in the communities and republics what they need,” said Cardin. “It’s a major difference.”

The transformation has affected the institution of “twinning,” until recently a way to form connections between American Jews and Soviet refuseniks. Typically, an American Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebration would invoke a refusenik teen of similar age as part of the ceremony.

Today, the National Conference speaks of twinnings closer to the sister-cities idea — a relationship “that help Jews feel that they’re part of klal Yisrael,” the totality of the Jewish people.

Topping the National Conference’s agenda is the effort to establish relations with the political leaders of the members of the Commonwealth of Independent States and of the four other former Soviet republics.


National Conference leaders met with the new foreign minister of Belarus, formerly Byelorussia, when he was still the not-yet-independent republic’s representative in New York. They have also met with several officials of Russia.

Martin Wenick, executive director of the conference, is making further contacts during a visit there later this week.

The original goal of the National Conference — free emigration for the Jews of the Soviet Union — remains a priority. In meetings with State Department officials, Cardin and Wenick make sure that the importance of human rights and emigration is conveyed to the new leadership of the Soviet Union’s successor states.

Cardin, who expects emigration to continue at the rate of about 10,000 a month, says the problem of refuseniks continues.

But in contrast to 1986, when the National Conference circulated a list of over 11,000 longterm refuseniks, the current count is not too far above 50, with an additional 200 or so cases whose refusals are less than five years old.

Most stem from charges that the refuseniks know state secrets — a catch-all restriction during the Brezhnev era and increasingly ridiculous as ex-Soviet nuclear scientists offer their expertise to the highest bidder.

Cardin said that a commission established following October’s international human rights summit in Moscow is continuing its efforts to review individual cases and the secrecy restriction in general, even though its head, Dr. Yuri Reshetov, is no longer head of the Soviet Foreign Ministry’s humanitarian affairs department.


The struggle to open the gates of the Iron Curtain was “one of the most successful and ambitious undertakings of any peoples in the world,” Cardin said, reflecting on the movement’s achievements.

“The process not only enabled nearly 500,000 to leave over a 10-year period, but encouraged millions to acknowledge their Jewish roots,” she said.

Since emigration from the Soviet Union began in 1968, 702,961 Jews have left (through the end of last year), of whom 506,054 went to Israel, according to the National Conference.

The conference was founded in 1971, to succeed the American Council on Soviet Jewry, the organized Jewish community’s tepid response to the grassroots Soviet Jewry movement.

By 1971, the issue had leaped to the front pages of the American press, due to both the dedicated activism of groups like the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry and the smaller-scale, but more deadly, terrorist campaign waged by Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defence League.

Cardin is careful to point out the dangers inherent as what was the Soviet Union tries to reshape itself. Her obvious pride in the Jewish community’s victory is not matched by unbridled joy at the defeat of what Ronald Reagan called the “Evil Empire.”

Instead, she cautions that much still has to be done before world Jewry can sleep soundly. And she hints that perhaps the United States is not doing enough to help.

“There must be a sense of understanding,” she said, noting a newspaper article cautioning that a sudden, unassisted changeover to capitalism in the once-Communist countries would not work.

“We have to appreciate in this country the very difficult period that faces all the republics,” she said. “There will be some who want a very firm, steady hand to tell them what to do.

“We must recognize what a serious condition this is for millions of people,” she said.

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