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B’nai B’rith Leaders Meet with High Soviet Officials on Jewish Needs

September 8, 1961
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Two proposals advanced by a Jewish delegation from the United States to high Soviet officials in Moscow, with regard to Jewish religion and education, were brushed aside by the officials, each of them giving the same answer–that these proposals would have to come from individual synagogues in the Soviet Union.

The delegation, composed of American B’nai B’rith leaders headed by Label A; Katz, president of the organization, conferred in Moscow separately with Alexander N. Kuznetsov, First Deputy Minister of Culture, and V. Riasanov, Deputy Chairman of the Council for the Affairs of Religious Cults. The members of the delegation proposed separately to the two high officials.

1. That Soviet Jewry be represented at a forthcoming international conference on Jewish education, as well as other worldwide non-political conferences dealing with Jewish cultural and religious affairs.

2. That “as an act of friendship between Jewish communities,” the B’nai B’rith should send to synagogues in the Soviet Union a gift of religious articles, including Bibles, prayer books and prayer shawls, which are in short supply in the USSR.

Mr. Katz, who returned today from Moscow, said that “each official gave the same answer to the first request”–that the request for Soviet Jewish participation in international Jewish conferences “would have to be initiated by individual synagogue groups in the USSR.” As to the offer of sending religious articles to Jews in Russia, Mr. Katz said that there was no response to it “except to say that we would have to take it up first with the synagogues.”

In reporting on the visit of the B’nai B’rith delegation to Moscow, Mr. Katz said here today that the delegation’s observations on the lack of Jewish cultural and educational

institutions in the Soviet Union do not correspond with what it was told by USSR officials–that Soviet Jews are not interested.

“Jewish cultural interests could easily flourish in the Soviet Union if they are accorded the same encouragement that is shown other Soviet ethnic groups,” Mr. Katz said. “In our brief but intensive contacts, we found a persistent streak of Jewish consciousness, even among young Jews. But they are without almost any cultural means to express it. This contrasts quite sharply with the Soviet Government’s support of cultural activities for other USSR nationality groups,” Mr. Katz declared.

The B’nai B’rith president said that he and other representatives of his organization, during their stay in Moscow, were granted an opportunity to discuss “this apparent contradiction” in Soviet policy toward its 100-and-more ethnic groups during a 60-minute conference with Mr. Kuznetsov. “Mr. Kuznetsov was among those who attributed the almost total absence of Jewish-content newspapers and periodicals, either in Yiddish or the Russian language, and of Jewish educational facilities, or even secular school courses in Yiddish or Hebrew, to a disinterest among Jews themselves,” Mr. Katz reported.

But, Mr. Katz added, “there is still a widespread use of Yiddish among Soviet Jews, and we told Mr. Kuznetsov that it is difficult to accept a conclusion that these people would not support enthusiastically a Yiddish press and other Yiddish cultural facilities, as well as Hebrew and Russian language institutions, if they are Jewishly oriented.”


The Soviet minister also told the B’nai B’rith leaders that his government, as well as Soviet Jews, favored the continuing growth of a dominant Soviet culture and the elimination of other cultures that might tend to set groups apart. “For our part,” Mr. Katz continued, “we suggested to Mr. Kusnetsov that this view created an inconsistency on two counts:

“First, the American experience has shown that the strengthening of diverse ethnic cultures in a nation does not compete with or weaken the national culture but, in fact, enhances it. Second, that Soviet leadership itself has accepted this concept by its support of programs–through schools, periodicals, the press, the theater, broadcasting and the like–to further the idioms and other cultural attributes of its various nationality groups.

“Since Soviet Jews are classified–even on their identification cards with the notation ‘Yivrei’ (Jew)–as a nationality group, any principle of equality requires that they be accorded the same opportunities for their cultural development,” the B’nai B’rith delegation argued.

Mr. Katz said that official identification of Soviet Jews as a nationality group, and the anti-Semitic excesses during the last five years of the Stalin regime, “are at least two of the factors that have helped heighten Jewish consciousness among young persons who have lived their entire lives in the Soviet society.” He cited the popularity of the five books published in Yiddish in the Soviet Union in recent years and “how much of a conversation piece we found Sovietish Heimland (Soviet Homeland), the new Yiddish bi-monthly, to be as evidence of strong Jewish interests.

A B’nai B’rith analysis of the editorial matter in the bi-monthly found only a “minimal amount” of Jewish content. However, Mr. Katz expressed the hope that this first appearance of a Yiddish magazine in the Soviet Union in 13 years “may become a positive, if small step toward the restoration of Jewish cultural activity.” He said he had expressed these sentiments to Mr. Kusnetsov.

In Budapest, the B’nai B’rith group met with Karoly Olt, chairman of Hungary’s Bureau of Religious Affairs, and with secular and religious leaders of the Hungarian Jewish community. Mr. Katz said that the visits to the USSR and Hungary were conducted on an “unofficial basis,” that the requests for conferences with government officials were granted “on short notice,” and that the B’nai B’rith group was received with cordiality and interest.

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