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Hundreds of Soviet Jews Gather in Moscow to Form Jewish Congress

December 20, 1989
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Several hundred Jews from all over the Soviet Union convened in Moscow on Monday for a historic conference aimed at establishing the first congress of Soviet Jewish communities and organizations.

An estimated 700 Jews, representing 175 Soviet Jewish organizations from 75 Soviet cities, gathered at the Central Cinema, Moscow’s equivalent of Radio City Music Hall, despite attempts by anti-Semitic demonstrators to keep them out.

About 60 members of the anti-Semitic group Pamyat gathered in subzero temperatures, waving placards that said, “Jews Out,” and “Down with Communism and Zionism.”

Several Jews testified that they had been physically assaulted, according to Israeli reporters attending the conference.

The assaults took place despite the presence of a number of Soviet militia officers engaged to prevent such occurrences. They largely managed to turn away the ruffians, telling them that they were demonstrating without permission, whereas the conference was being held with a permit.

“Had it not been for the police, one cannot tell how it would have ended,” a Jewish participant told Gideon Allon, a reporter for the Israeli Hebrew daily Ha’aretz.

But the police made no arrests, the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews reported in Washington.

The Union of Councils sent representatives to the conference, as did a number of Jewish organizations, including the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, the World Jewish Congress and B’nai B’rith International.


Rising Soviet anti-Semitism, in fact, was a prime topic of discussion at the conference.

Jews from the Soviet Asian republic of Uzbekistan complained that recent reports of anti-Semitic riots in that largely Moslem part of the country were “largely exaggerated.”

Nevertheless, a top priority of the new congress is the establishment of a commission to deal with anti-Semitism.

It will be one of several commissions named to deal with various issues, including problems of youth; culture and religion; coordination with Soviet nationalist movements; Zionism; and refuseniks.

“Soviet Jews came of age this week, with the establishment of this group,” Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said in a telephone call from Moscow.

The new Jewish federation, officially called the Congress of Jewish Organizations and Communities of the Soviet Union, has asked to be affiliated with the WJC and will probably send a representative of its executive committee to the WJC Executive meeting in New York next month.

The representative is expected to be Mikhail Chlenov, leader of the Jewish Cultural Association in Moscow.

Chlenov greeted conference participants with remarks stressing the historic nature of the gathering. Never had there been such an association in Russia, even before the Russian Revolution, he proclaimed.

The congress encompasses all manner of Jewish groups. “Virtually every trend, except for the Anti-Zionist Committee, is represented,” Steinberg reported.

The WJC official said he felt “a sense of exhilaration” being at the conference. “We were with this community which for so many years had been cut off from the rest of the world,” he said.


Isi Leibler, a WJC vice president from Australia who was instrumental in bringing about the opening of a Jewish cultural center in Moscow last February, told the gathering Monday, “Let it be known from this day: The Soviet Jewry movement is no longer an underground organization.”

In one sign of the spectacular changes in Soviet Jewish life, the conference was greeted by two members of the Israeli consular delegation to Moscow, Merom Gordon and Zvi Magen. Magen delivered a warm message of support from Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

“With interest and appreciation, we follow your blessed activity of maintaining the link of Soviet Jews to our homeland, to our culture, as well as to the awareness of the common fate of the Jewish people,” Shamir said in the message.

“Every bit of reawakening Jewish life is like a fresh breeze to our suffering people.”

They were also saluted by the Dutch ambassador to Moscow, P. Buwalda, who said, “Such a gathering only a short time ago would have been unthinkable.”

The Dutch Embassy handled Israel’s interests in Moscow for over 20 years, in the absence of an Israeli presence there.

A representative of the Soviet Foreign Ministry, Yuri Reshetov, attended the conference, but made no speech.

Opening blessings were given by Rabbi Joseph Goldschmidt of Israel, the director of the Adin Steinsaltz yeshiva in Moscow.

The meeting was officially convened by Chlenov and Grigory Kanovich, a novelist who is a member of the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies, representing Lithuania.

Kanovich has published an article on the desolate state of Jewish life in the Soviet Union and unsuccessfully tried to present Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev with a petition protesting prevalent anti-Semitism.


Chlenov was elected to the nine-member presidium of the new congress, along with Joseph Zissels, a former prisoner of conscience from Chernovtsy; Roman Spektor and Alexander Shmukler, cultural activists from Moscow; Vladimir Dashevsky, considered the head of the Soviet Jewish religious community; Moscow refusenik and emigration activist Leonid Stonov; Boris Kelman, head of the Leningrad Society for Jewish Culture; and Samuel Zilberg and Gregory Krupnikov, who head Riga’s Latvian Jewish Cultural Society.

The congress also elected a 40-member council.

The hall was decked with banners of Soviet Jewry groups from the West, a profusion of whose members were represented at the historic gathering. There were delegations from the United States, Canada, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Israel.

Former prominent refuseniks and prisoners of Zion Vladimir Slepak and Yosef Begun attended from Israel. Their entrance into the hall was reportedly met by a standing ovation.

Former prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky, however, did not receive a visa and was therefore also unable to attend the funeral of Andrei Sakharov, who died of a heart attack Dec. 14.

Slepak left soon after his arrival to attend the state funeral for Sakharov, the human rights activist who affiliated himself with the Soviet Jewry movement, particularly on behalf of the right to immigrate to Israel.

The Jewish congress included a moment of silence in memory of the Nobel peace laureate in its opening ceremonies.

(Contributing to this report were JTA correspondents David Landau and Gil Sedan in Jerusalem.)

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