NEW YORK (May. 14)
In his long-awaited first address before a Jewish group, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev condemned anti-Semitism as “one of the worst manifestations of national chauvinism.”
Speaking Wednesday night at a dinner for Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Gorbachev warned that nationalist tendencies “that are not blatant very often become explosive and lead to disaster.” He added that democracies “must always be nurtured and protected.”
Introduced as “a prophet and a sage” by Dr. Norman Lamm, Yeshiva’s president, Gorbachev received the first Benjamin N. Cardozo Democracy Award and a rousing ovation from the 700 people who had paid $1500 to attend the black-tie dinner.
The guest of honor wore a grey suit and red tie, rather than a tuxedo. But showing a clear understanding of capitalist realities, he agreed to speak at the dinner after friends of Yeshiva donated $1000,000 to the foundation he has set up.
The university meanwhile scored a public-relations coup by hosting one of the hottest tickets in town, and netted more than $2 million for the law school.
For an extra several thousand dollars apiece, donors were able to meet the former Soviet president in a small reception before the event.
HONORING GORBACHEV DRAWS CRITICISM
The choice of Gorbachev for an honoree, whom Lamm praised as “an adversary who became a hero,” drew criticism from some veteran Soviet Jewry activists who charged that Gorbachev was, until very recently, a staunch supporter of the Soviet communist regime.
“It is inaccurate to credit Gorbachev with the eventual large emigration (of Soviet Jews) of the 1980′s,” said Rabbi Avi Weiss, national chairman of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, and Pamela Cohen, national president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, in a statement. “The credit for that belongs to those who forced Gorbachev’s hand.”
Gorbachev they said, is viewed by democrats in the former Soviet Union “as the Communist head of the Kremlin’s totalitarian structure.”
The characterization was disputed by Martin Wenick, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.
Acknowledging that Gorbachev does not have great popularity among the Russian population, Wenick said the symbol of the old regime are the people who led the (abortive August) coup. One can legitimately question to what degree he’s a reformer or democratic, but that’s something else.”
Wenick was among 12 top Jewish organization leaders who met with Gorbachev on Tuesday for 45 minutes.
At that meeting, as in the shorter and more general speech, Gorbachev warned of the rise in nationalism. He asked for assistance from the West to enable democratic reforms to continue.
“If the reforms fail, the entire world will be pulled into a black hole,” he was quoted as saying by Shoshana Cardin, who chaired the meeting. Cardin chairs the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.
“He made the statement that we had found each other too late, that he had engaged in dialogue with the Jewish community too late,” said Wenick.
At a press conference Wednesday evening prior to his address, Gorbachev denied that anti-Semitism is endemic in Russia.
“Historically, we indeed had periods in our history where we had outbursts of anti-Semitism,” he admitted.
“I remember when I was a student in 1952, where there was an ugly period where the people were accused, unfairly.
“I am also witness that during the situation of glasnost and democracy, this problem was debated and very often there was bias in the debate of that problem.
“But I have every reason to say that even before 1985 (when Gorbachev came to power), and even after ’85, our society did not have this disease of anti-Semitism,” Gorbachev said.