Andrei Sakharov, a rare voice for human rights in the Soviet Union, will be sorely missed by the world Jewish community, which noted his passing with sadness.
Sakharov, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and nuclear physicist who died of a heart attack on Dec. 14, was once described by Soviet Jewish activist Natan Sharansky as “the conscience of the Soviet Union.”
“I think he himself, through his efforts and influence, really changed the whole atmosphere of the Soviet Union, not just now, but 20 and 25 years ago,” Sharansky said on Israel Radio shortly after hearing the news of Sakharov’s death.
A founder of the Helsinki human rights monitoring group, Sakharov, 68, was remembered fondly this week by Soviet Jewry advocacy groups, such as the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.
The conference referred to him in a statement as a “beacon of freedom” and “a steadfast champion of human rights.”
In 1968, he attacked the Soviet leadership for “backsliding into anti-Semitism” and characterized the bureaucracy in the “highest elite of the land” of acting “in the spirit of Stalinist anti-Semitism.”
According to the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, or NJCRAC, Sakharov stood outside Soviet courtrooms in 1970 and 1971 to protest the sentencing of aliyah activists who attempted to steal an airplane and flee the country.
“They have only one aim,” said Sakharov. “To go to Israel, which is their right.”
SUPPORTED RIGHT OF ALIVAH
In 1975, Sakharov, considered the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, published a statement on “Freedom of Choosing One’s Country of Residence.”
In it, he praised the U.S. Congress’ adoption of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the U.S. Trade Act, which first linked the Soviets’ trade status to the level of free emigration.
Sakharov wrote that the amendment “continued the best democratic and humane traditions of the American people” and rejected “the assertions of the critics” that it was “interference into the domestic affairs of the USSR.”
In the same document, Sakharov referred to aliyah, or Jewish immigration to Israel, as “a phenomenon of general human importance and important in principle in the thousands-year-old tragic history of the Jewish people.
“I understand and respect the national feelings of the Jews who go to build and defend their newly acquired homeland,” he wrote.
Sakharov, who spent several years of internal exile in the “closed” Soviet city of Gorky, openly supported the Jewish state and publicly defended Israel’s right to exist within secure and recognized borders, while urging an equitable solution to the Palestinian problem.
In 1975, he warned the United Nations against sanctioning anti-Semitism, while the world body was considering its infamous resolution equating Zionism with racism.
“If this resolution is adopted,” he said, “it can only contribute to anti-Semitic tendencies in other countries by giving them the appearance of international legality.”
Harry Lipkin, a senior physicist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, told the Jerusalem Post he had corresponded with Sakharov since 1980, when he discovered that he and Sakharov were doing nearly identical work on elementary particles in Israel and the USSR.
Around the time of the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, Lipkin recalled, Sakharov’s Moscow apartment was broken into by masked Arabs who cut his telephone lines and threatened his family because of his public support of Israel.
‘A PARAGON AMONG MEN’
After the break-in, Sakharov reportedly received a postcard with the message: “Black September always remembers its ‘friends.’ “
Lipkin recently invited Sakharov to attend the Weizmann Forum on Science and Government, held in Israel last week, but was told that the Soviet scientist felt his presence was needed in Moscow because of recent developments in the Soviet Union.
Sakharov was a member of the Congress of People’s Deputies, the supreme legislative body that convenes twice a year.
Sakharov continued his crusade for human rights even on his last day alive, when he lectured Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, during a session of the congress, on the need for greater pluralism in and full democratization of Soviet life.
“It’s not often that a gallant champion of human rights challenges the government of a superpower and becomes a giant on the world stage,” Seymour Reich, president of B’nai B’rith International and chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said in a statement.
“Andrei Sakharov was such a paragon among men,” he added.
“Jews owe Andrei Sakharov a special debt,” David Harris, Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee, wrote in a personal remembrance.
“Not only has he fought indefatigably for peace and human rights, but he has been outspoken on behalf of Soviet Jewish emigration, Jewish prisoners of conscience, and a safe and secure Israel,” he added.
Sakharov’s lifelong commitment to human rights was recognized in 1984 by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which presented him, in absentia, with its Humanitarian Award.
The Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry called Sakharov “a truly righteous gentile who fulfilled the dictum of our sages: ‘When men do not act as men, strive to do so.’ “
B’nai Brith Canada leaders described him as a “symbol of freedom.”
The Appeal of Conscience Foundation called Sakharov’s death “an irreparable loss to the Soviet people and the cause of liberty everywhere.”
Several organizations expressed condolences to Sakharov’s widow, Dr. Yelena Bonner, a human rights activist of Jewish origin who shared his ideals.
(JTA correspondent Hugh Orgel in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.)
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.