An expert on international law, human rights and Soviet Jewry said here that the Jewish community must “fine tune” its responses to the Soviet Union on the issue of Jewish emigration and to forego an unvarying “shrei gevalt” reaction regardless of how many Jews are allowed to emigrate annually.
Yoram Dinstein, rector of the Tel Aviv University, told several hundred people attending a sesion on “The Rescue of Soviet Jewry: Whose Responsibility?” at the 53rd General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations that it becomes counter-productive to denounce the Soviet Union with unyielding intensity when it permits thousands of Jews to leave as well as when it closes the gates to emigration and allows only a handful to leave. Whether the Soviets allow thousands of Jews to leave or only tens of Jews, the Soviets are sending a message, and the message is different at different times and must be understood in context.
“We must give signals to the Soviet Union if they do something favorable and we must pick up the gauntlet if they don’t,” Dintein said. If the Jewish community “shries gevalt” when 51,000 Jews are allowed to leave, as they were in 1979, the peak year of Jewish emigration, “what are we left with when the Soviets allow less than 1,000 to leave, as this year?”
WARNS AGAINST EXAGGERATION
Dinstein warned against crying wolf or exaggerating the condition of Jews in the USSR. “We were warned of a pogrom against the Jews, that they will be sent to Siberia, and have referred to the plight and illness of one or more Jewish activists and then found them to be in better health once they leave than they were reported to have been,” he said.
Crying wolf and exaggerating the situation only tends to discredit the Soviet Jewry movement and results in a loss of sympathy or interest in the real problems facing Soviet Jews, he observed. The situation is severe enough not “to have to gild the lily,” Dinstein said. All that is necessary is “to take a snaphot of what exists,” he said.
He pointed out that when the Soviets allowed 51,000 Jews to leave, “it was a signal and we should have signalled back. It didn’t mean that we had to pack up and go home. But we have to play different tunes to accompany different developments.”
EMIGRATION AND EAST-WEST DETENTE
Dinstein said the Soviet Union lets Jews go on the basis of East-West detente. The Soviets do not give anything away without making certain that they receive in return a concession from the West comensurate with what they have given away. If the Soviets seek detente they can provide signs of “being liberal on the cheap” by allowing Jews to leave, he said. The world applauds this as a humanitarian gesture and the Soviets have not really lost much in the process.
“What did the Soviet Union lose by letting 260,000 Jews leave (under the regime of the late President Leonid Brezhnev)?” Dinstein asked. Very little, he answered. These Jews were allowed to leave because their role in Soviet society until then — as scientists, doctors, professionals — had been replaced by other segments in Soviet society. To assure the continued emigration of Jews from the USSR, Dinstein said “we must be in favor of detente.”
In answer to a question, he said there is no relationship between the Soviet policy towards its Jewish citizens and its policy toward Israel. The Soviets helped Israel in the early years of the Jewish State, especially during the War of Independence, when Czechoslovakia sent arms to Israel with the tacit approval of the Soviet Union, Dinstein said.
It was also the bleakest years for Jews in the USSR when Stalin ordered the mass arrest of Jewish doctors in the infamous “doctors’plot” episode and ordered the murder of several Jewish poets, he said. On the other hand, he observed, the worst year in the relations between the Soviets and Israel — in 1979, two years after Menachem Begin became Israel’s Premier — was also the best year for Soviet Jewish emigration.
A SUCCESS STORY
Dinstein pointed out that it is now 25 years since the struggle for Soviet Jewry began. He said it has been “a success story beyond our wildest dreams,” with more than 250,000 Jews having emigrated. Nevertheless, he added, a minimum of 350,000 more Jews want to leave the USSR “and if the doors were open, practically all Jews would leave.”
He said that one of the positive developments in the struggle for Soviet Jewry has been “that we in the West contributed to the consciousness of Jews in the Soviet Union and provided them with an identity and pride.” In addition, Dinstein said, “we have been instrumental in getting Soviet Jews closer to the sources of Jewishness.”
At the same time, he said there is also a debit side to the development in this struggle. “We are getting tired. We have become tired of the subject.” But, Dinstein noted, the struggle for Soviet Jewry was not begun as “a campaign for a few years, but for decades. Those who decide to participate in this struggle do so for life.”
Another negative development, Dinstein observed, is that “we have lost the sense of unity and objectives. Splinter groups have developed within the Jewish community and frequently they take steps that are counter-productive and dangerous.” In this connection, he refered to, without identifying them, those Jews who open fire at the Soviet Mission to the United Nations or who harass Soviet officials in the United States.
Dinstein also cautioned Soviet Jewish groups not to work with anti-Soviet groups like the Ukrainians. He said “it is mistake to do so and weakens our struggle.”
PLIGHT OF CHILDREN OF REFUSENIKS
Alexandra Finkelshtein, a former Soviet refusenik who worked as a marine biologist in the Soviet Union until she applied for an exit visa, and who now lives in Israel, described the plight of the children of long-time refuseniks who became “hostages of their parents.”
The soft-spoken, almost frail Finkelshtein, said that the adults take risks in seeking to emigrate “but we make the choice to take risks.” The children have not made a choice but are “subjected to the same humiliation and the same danger as their parents and this is very difficult” for both the children and their parents. “Our children grow up in an abnormal, unnatural situation as they witness the arrests of parents, KGB surveillance and are subjected to the same ostracism as their parents,” she said.
The children are born in freedom, as are children everywhere, Finkelshtein observed, “and can’t understand the total unfreedom they have to endure. They ask, why, if they (the Soviet authorities) don’t like us don’t they let us out?”
She recounted how Soviet authorities tried to dissuade her from naming her daughter, Miriam. The authorities said the name was “strange” and suggested a more typical Russian name like Marina or Marianna, Finkelshtein said. After several hours of this harassment, the authorities finally agreed to allow the baby to be named Miriam after she and her husband persisted.
THE ATTITUDE OF CHILDREN
Finkelshtein also recounted that at the age of seven, Miriam came home from school one day glum and depressed. After some time she finally asked, “Wouldn’t it be better for us not to be Jews?”
Another time, Miriam asked her mother to attend a children’s exhibition of drawings at her school. “The drawings were very good,” Finkelshtein said, “but about one-third of them showed Israeli soldiers with swastikas and Magen Davids intertwined on armbands and Israeli soldiers bombing Arab villages. The children can’t be blamed, they are victims of vicious anti-Zionist propaganda. How does one live in such an atmosphere?”
She told the audience that efforts on behalf of Soviet Jews have kept them going and have bouyed their spirits and resolve. She urged that these efforts continue. “As long as you persist, we will be safe,” Finkelshtein declared.
CITES U.S. DETERMINATION
Morris Abram, chairman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights and chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, said the U.S. government is determined to make the issue of Soviet Jewry “an issue of first rate importance, not a throw away item,” in discussions with Soviet leaders and in negotiations with the Soviet Union.
He said that Secretary of State George Shultz is especially, among all the Reagan Adminitration officials, vitally interested and concerned with the rights of Soviet Jews and that he has vigorously pursued the issue of human rights for Soviet Jews in his meetings with Soviet officials.
Abram said that letting Jews go from the Soviet Union is less important for Soviet leaders than how the issue helps the Soviets. He said there are considerable grounds for optimism regarding the future of Soviet Jews “if we seize the opportunities.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.