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Soviet Jewry Movement Facing New Challenges in Gorbachev Era

January 20, 1989
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With conditions for Soviet Jews seeming to improve and a Western “honeymoon” with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev still going strong, Soviet Jewry groups are taking a hard look at the future of their movement.

Last year, nearly 19,000 Soviet Jews were allowed to leave the Soviet Union, the highest total in nine years and well more than twice the number the year before. In 1989, as many as 38,000 may be allowed out.

The most famous of the long-term refuseniks — Natan Sharansky, Ida Nudel, Vladimir Slepak, Viktor Brailovsky, to name a few — are living in Israel. So is Alexei Magarik, the last prisoner of Zion.

The National Conference on Soviet Jewry said that as of Jan. I there were 2,696 refuseniks remaining in the Soviet Union, down from 11,000 in 1986.

This developments have prompted leaders in the Soviet Jewry movement to grapple with a number of tough questions:

* How can the movement fight the impression that the Soviet Jewish issue has been solved, when so little of the Soviet Union’s changes have been institutionalized?

* Will persistent criticism of the Soviet Union, especially in the form of support for U.S.-Soviet trade restrictions, make Jewish groups appear out of step with the American mainstream?

* To what extent should the movement promote Jewish cultural life within the Soviet Union, after years of trying to get Jews out?

* What responsibility does the American Jewish community have to solve the “neshira” problem and reverse a trend of Soviet Jews choosing the United States over Israel?


Fundamental changes in the Soviet Jewry movement became apparent last week with news that the National Conference would begin reexamining its traditional support of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which denies most-favored-nation trade status to the Soviet Union until it allows free emigration.

The conference said it was not yet ready to call for the repeal or a waiver of Jackson-Vanik or like legislation, but that it is “assessing positive changes” in Soviet emigration.

But the conference and other groups refuse to allow talk of improvement in Soviet human rights to go unqualified.

Emigration may be up, but they say Soviet authorities are “capricious” in granting permission to emigrate. Restrictions have been lifted on the transmission of Jewish culture, but the changes have yet to be institutionalized.

Most ominously, the same freedom that has allowed Jewish cultural organizations to emerge from underground has also given rise to anti-Semitic groups, such as Pamyat.

“We accept with appreciation and acknowledge what has taken place, but it remains to be seen whether it will continue or even increase,” said Shoshana Cardin, the NCSJ chairwoman.

Apparent improvements represent another challenge to the movement. Nudel, Sharansky and other well-known refuseniks were powerful symbols. With their release, the movement must now begin what one activist called a “long program of fighting for masses of nameless, faceless people.”

Micah Naftalin, national director of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, still believes in the kind of public rallies that characterized the movement for years, like the historic “Freedom Sunday” of December 1987.

But the trend has been away from big public demonstrations. Last April, organizers canceled New York’s massive Solidarity Sunday event, ending a 16-year tradition, and plans have not been announced for its resumption.

The Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, however, feels it is not yet time to turn off the heat on the Soviets.

“The Jewish community, at the moment of achieved success, has gone into hibernation,” said Glenn Richter, the group’s national coordinator.

Richter worries that the incoming Bush administration will perceive Jewish inaction as an opportunity to overlook the human rights issue in dealing with the Soviets.


Mainstream groups counter that Washington is more aware of the Soviet Jewry movement than ever. With Soviet emigres flooding transit centers in Rome and Vienna, Jewish groups have been intensively lobbying the administration and Congress to raise the yearly quota on the number of Soviet refugees.

But lobbying efforts must be measured against prevailing public attitudes. In the weeks since jubilant New Yorkers chanted “Gorby! Gorby!” organizations know they must be on guard against the appearance of Soviet-bashing.

Abraham Bayer, director of international affairs at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, thinks the movement can keep the pressure on if it sticks to the facts.

“This movement has always flourished based on the truth and accuracy. We’ve never made it better or worse than it is,” he said.

The groups are also looking at attitudes within the Soviet Union, and have begun a campaign to bring Jewish culture to its Jews.

It is a major step for the movement, acknowledging the possibility for a viable Jewish life in the Soviet Union and reversing the movement’s longstanding image as a movement for aliyah, or migration to Israel.

In fact, with the influx of Soviet Jews threatening to overwhelm the resettlement budgets of individual Jewish federations in the United States, some observers say it is past the time when Soviet Jewry activists can call theirs an “aliyah movement.”

For David Harris, Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee, the movement may have to explore “what more we can do to increase Jewish national consciousness in the Soviet Union. We can renew that nationalist movement, to make Israel a more inviting and hospitable destination.”

Harris also believes American groups also have a responsibility to foster the Jewish life of Soviet emigrants in this country.

“By almost everyone’s account, far too many Soviet Jews remain isolated, unaffiliated, unattached and disenfranchised from the community, once they leave the federation rolls,” he said.

“One of the great tragic ironies of this whole magnificent Soviet Jewry movement would be if we were to have struggled so tenaciously to see them disappear.”

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