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Soviet Jews Fill ’empty Chair’ at Wjc Assembly in Jerusalem

May 7, 1991
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Soviet Jewry officially took its rightful place among the Jewish communities of the world Monday, as the ninth plenary assembly of the World Jewish Congress convened here.

“This is truly a historic moment,” said Michael Chlenov, head of the Soviet Jewish delegation to the assembly and co-president of the Vaad, the umbrella body of Jewish institutions in the Soviet Union.

Chlenov, an ethnographer who has been a Jewish cultural activist in Moscow since the early 1970s, told reporters here last week that the 65 delegates from the Soviet Union “represent the complexity and, we hope, the unity of our community today.”

Avi Beker, director of the Israel Section of the WJC, said that since the organization was founded in 1936, an empty chair has always been set aside at WJC assemblies for delegates from the Soviet Union.

Chlenov and other Soviet Jews have attended WJC meetings for the last two years, but not as official representatives of Soviet Jewry.

The delay in putting together an official delegation of Soviet Jews stemmed from internal tensions within the Vaad that reflect the struggle between the central government and the independence-minded republics that has been tearing at the fabric of the Soviet state.

Valery Engel, a Vaad leader from Moscow and president of the Association for Jewish Studies and Jewish Culture, said that “the independence movements in the republics have again raised an old question: Who should the Jews identify with, the republics or the central government?


“The Vaad is the only organization encompassing all Jews in the Soviet Union,” he said. “But we have to understand that the actual work for Jewish culture, aliyah and fighting anti-Semitism is done by local associations. This creates a real dilemma for them.”

Vaad leaders from the Ukraine and the Baltic states had sought separate representation for their associations in the WJC, as a gesture of support for their local independence movements.

The national leaders of the Vaad and the WJC were opposed to this.

To solve this problem, a new regional section in the WJC was created for Soviet Jewry, to give greater representation from the republics. The new branch, although it is referred to as the East Europe-Asia Continental Section, does not yet have an official name, nor are its boundaries exactly defined.

Chlenov said that Soviet Jewry today faces “dangers of anti-Semitism, and the dangers of economic collapse and political disintegration, which we share with the entire Soviet population.

Chlenov said he is often asked if there is a future for Soviet Jews. “I don’t know about a future,” he said, “but there is a present, and we must cope with it.

“Not all Soviet Jews will leave even within five years; this will be a long process, unless a catastrophe occurs,” he said. “Meanwhile, we have our lives there, and we must organize Jewish life and secure Jewish rights as long as there are Jews in the Soviet Union.”

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