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Refuseniks become activists again

MOSCOW, Dec. 23 (JTA) — Fourteen years ago, dissident Yosef Begun paid 500 rubles to get rid of his Russian citizenship so he could emigrate to Israel. Recently, Begun paid $500 to get his Russian citizenship back so he could travel easily between Jerusalem and Moscow. Begun, who spent 16 years in the Soviet Gulag for his underground Jewish activities, publishes books on Jewish culture and tradition. But he says he is less of a Zionist than he used to be. "The Zionist idea" of the in-gathering of the exiles is "dead now," Begun told JTA. "The aliyah from the former Soviet Union and other countries is decreasing. We have to pay more attention to the work in the Diaspora." Begun´s views about the death of Zionism were not shared by the dozens of refuseniks who gathered at a Jewish community center in Moscow last week. But the focus of the two-day conference — in addition to renewing old friendships and sharing memories of more harrowing days — suggests that the traditional goal of bringing Russian Jews to Israel has been replaced by a desire to build the 2-million strong "Russian Jewish Diaspora" around the world. The conference supported a project to launch a worldwide union of Jews from the former Soviet Union. The congress hopes to be in place by May 2002, according to Valery Engel, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia. The federation, which has close ties to the Chabad Lubavitch movement, is behind both the conference and the worldwide group. The goals of this group, according to federation leaders, are to initiate cross-cultural programs, promote investments in Russia and Israel, support Israel and Russia in their fight against international terrorism and help Russia integrate into the world community. The activists could play a vital role, one conference participant said. "They have been active in the society, they have frequently played leading roles in their communities and they have a potential to serve as a basic activist network" in a worldwide organization of Russian Jewry, said Wolf Moskovich, a Ukrainian-born professor of Slavic studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.. Yuli Edelstein, a former prisoner of Zion who is currently Israel´s deputy minister of absorption, also supports the idea of uniting Russian Jewry — and of former refuseniks being instrumental in this process. "There is still some common denominator for people who have come from one country, who fought for some bright ideals 25 years ago," said Edelstein, whose Russian immigrant party is led by perhaps the most famous former refusenik of all, Natan Sharansky. Some Western Jewish leaders at the conference who had fought on behalf Soviet Jewry said they didn´t understand the need for the new union. "Most of the Russian Jews have become successfully integrated in the Israeli and U.S. societies," said Jerry Goodman, who in 1971 founded the National Conference for Soviet Jewry, a U.S.-based Jewish group. "I think that now that they have solved their material problems, they have become nostalgic for some kind of Mother Russia." Some other U.S. and Israeli participants told JTA of their misgivings that this new group would be sponsored and controlled by the federation, which they consider too close to the Kremlin. But former dissident Felix Dektor said the intellectual and cultural potential of Russian Jews around the world is too great to waste. Leonid Stonov of the Union of Councils of Jews in the former Soviet Union, himself a former refusenik, said that this is not the first time such a worldwide group has been proposed.. "But this time," Stonov said, expressing the view of most participants, "with the federation´s financial support, it seems more feasible."