Commentary Magazine

The Jews of Hope, by Martin Gilbert


The Jews of Hope.
by Martin Gilbert.
Viking: Elizabeth Sifton Books. 237 pp. $15.95.

Try as they might, Soviet authorities have been notably unsuccessful in their efforts to crush the movement for Jewish emigration and the associated struggle for Jewish religious and cultural rights. The refuseniks—those Jews who officially have been denied permission to emigrate to Israel—have been subjected to just about every device in the totalitarian arsenal short of mass terror: economic reprisal, discrimination against their children, isolation from friends and relatives living abroad, constant surveillance, arrests, frame-ups, terms in the Gulag, and an anti-Semitic propaganda campaign of singular repulsiveness. They have been condemned to live in a society whose leaders openly despise them and whose ordinary citizens are exhorted to regard them as pariahs and traitors. For the refuseniks, moreover, the rule of law is nonexistent. That a refusenik observes Soviet legal standards with scrupulous care counts for nothing if the regime should decide that the time has come for him to be singled out for punishment. A reason, any reason, no matter how ludicrous it might appear to the outside world, will be found to justify the inevitable prison sentence, as witness the recent prosecutions of refuseniks on patently fabricated narcotics and firearms charges.

Yet despite having been consigned, semi-officially, to the status of enemies of the state, the refuseniks continue to press their case, nourished by the solidarity of friends and family, a powerful sense of Jewish identity, and, most importantly, the hope that they will eventually realize their long-sought goal—the right to live as Jews in Israel. In the meantime, the refuseniks have created, against daunting odds, an alternate culture, with classes in the Hebrew language and Jewish history and religious ceremonies conducted free from state control. It is their unwillingness to restrict religious observance to the narrow limits permitted by the state which the Kremlin finds especially infuriating; in response, the authorities have launched a remorseless offensive against the teaching of Hebrew which has culminated in a recent wave of arrests and jailings.

Martin Gilbert, the distinguished British historian best known for his ongoing biography of Winston Churchill, interviewed a number of the more prominent refuseniks during a trip to the Soviet Union in 1983: this book is an account, essentially journalistic, of their plight. The Jews of Hope is not, however, the definitive study of Soviet Jewry, and unfortunately it also lacks the kind of rigorous analysis one expects from a writer of Gilbert's credentials. Such central questions as the motives behind the Soviet Union's policies toward Jews, and the conduct of the state-sanctioned Jewish religious leaders, are only briefly, and indirectly, addressed. Yet in spite of its several omissions, The Jews of Hope is a revealing, and often moving, examination of anti-totalitarian resistance. The refuseniks come across as thoroughly admirable, even heroic, human beings; their oppressors, the constellation of policemen, prosecutors, interrogators, emigration bureaucrats, and propagandists are the anonymous functionaries of a despicable system.

Between 1968, when the Soviet Union first permitted a moderate level of Jewish emigration, and 1981, over 640,000 Jews took the initial step toward leaving the USSR. During that period some 260,000 were allowed to emigrate, leaving 380,000 compelled to remain in the Soviet Union. To this number must be added unknown thousands who would like to emigrate but who, out of fear that they might share the refuseniks' fate, have decided against applying for exit visas. Since 1979, when Jewish emigration reached its peak of 50,000, the number of Jews granted permission to leave has fallen off dramatically; during 1984, fewer than 1,000 were permitted to leave.

Soviet officials have advanced various excuses as to why the gates of exit have closed. At the most absurd extreme, it is asserted (by a newly formed anti-Zionist committee) that no more Jews want to emigrate. On other occasions, Moscow has blamed the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which ties a nation's trade status with the United States to its emigration policies; this is clearly not true, since emigration reached unprecedented levels after the amendment was enacted.

Closer to the mark is the argument that Jewish emigration created unanticipated difficulties for the state, insofar as many more applications for exit visas were submitted than had been originally expected. That hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens were prepared to abandon the first nation of socialism for a country relentlessly portrayed by the official media as a principal outpost of world fascism was undoubtedly a severe blow to the Kremlin's pride. Still, while Jewish emigration dealt the Kremlin a propaganda setback, it has not significantly eroded the state's ability to control the Soviet population. This is at least partially due to the policy of official intimidation directed at the Jewish population, and particularly at those who attempt to leave. Jews have been let out, but a price has been exacted of sufficient severity to discourage other restive Soviet nationalities from raising the issue of emigration.

There are, to begin with, economic penalties. Jews who apply for exit visas automatically forfeit their jobs, and these are often quite good jobs as doctors, scientists, engineers, performing artists. In order to avoid prosecution under the Soviet Union's anti-parasite law, would-be emigrants are forced to accept the most menial and poorly paid occupations, such as night watchman or boiler operator.

The children of refuseniks are also punished. Again, the crucial lever is the state's monopoly over employment and educational opportunity. No matter how brilliant a refusenik's child may be, he will not be permitted to attend a university or practice a profession. The children are also the victims of public chastisement; the daughter of a prominent refusenik family was made to stand in front of her class while her teacher accused her of being an “agent of Zionism.”

Refuseniks who have attained high military positions, including decorated war heroes, are demoted to the lowest possible rank, and hounded by the media. The regime attempts to keep contacts between refuseniks and foreigners to the bare minimum. Refuseniks consider themselves fortunate to receive one of every five letters or packages mailed from abroad; prayer books and Hebrew grammars are automatically confiscated. Their phones can be disconnected at the authorities' whim and their homes are periodically searched by KGB officials who invariably seize Hebrew books or religious materials.

Refuseniks must also contend with the complex and often changing bureaucratic regulations constructed by the regime as a form of legalistic persecution. Visa applications must be resubmitted every six months. Crucial among the required documents are letters from the applicant's various Soviet relatives giving assent to the proposed emigration. A refusal from a parent or other close relative can be used as justification for turning down the request. Moreover, a recent regulation requires that new letters of approval be submitted with each resubmission of the visa request. This is no small matter in a society where, for entirely justifiable reasons, the relatives of refuseniks might feel that even indirect participation in the emigration process could imperil their own or their children's futures.

Clearly, the regime's objective is to make the refusenik's life in the Soviet Union as unpleasant as possible. In addition to its economic, educational, and bureaucratic dimensions, this strategy entails a systematic campaign to prevent “unauthorized” religious or cultural observances from taking place. The police maintain close scrutiny over refusenik families, and go to extraordinary lengths to discourage their coming together for the celebration of Jewish holidays or for the study of Judaism. Since it involves a ritual celebrated by children, the authorities take extra precautions to prevent the celebration of Purim. In 1981, in Leningrad, the police were unable to learn at whose home the Purim play was to take place. They therefore blocked off the homes of ten activist Jews. The following year, ten policemen were assigned to seal off the home of a refusenik family where a Purim play involving ten children was planned: one policeman per child.

The regime responds with equal aggressiveness against those involved in the network of unofficial Hebrew schools. There are almost no Hebrew courses taught in Soviet universities and specialized institutes, and enrollment in the few state-sanctioned classes is limited to Christian scholars and KGB officers who specialize in Jewish affairs. Jews are not allowed to attend.

The authorities have also taken pains to insure that synagogues function solely as houses of worship, and not as centers of spiritual and cultural life. There are no religious schools and no rabbinical seminaries in the Soviet Union, and Jewish religious literature is practically nonexistent. In Leningrad the officials went so far as to forbid the synagogues from lending books to young believers.


In recent years the regime has also launched an anti-Semitic propaganda drive of a ferocity unparalleled in the post-Stalin period. In its milder form, this entails outright denial that anti-Semitism was the motivation behind the pogroms of the Czarist era; Jews, it is said, were victimized because of understandable peasant resentment over Jewish economic domination. In its more virulent strain, the new anti-Semitism involves charges like the one published in a Kiev newspaper in 1983 that “several dozen SS officers, pupils of the Hitler youth, taught in Israeli paramilitary schools and prepared specialists in conducting punitive expeditions” during the war in Lebanon. The author of this bit of fiction went on to add: “The Zionist six-pointed Star of David has replaced the spiderlike swastika. Zionism is the new fascism.”

Lev Korneyev, a popular Soviet writer, said in the publication of the Communist youth organization that the purpose of Zionism was “to turn every Jew, no matter where he lives, . . . into a traitor to the country where he was born.” Korneyev and other writers routinely accuse Zionists of complicity in the Holocaust by paving the way for Hitler's seizure of power. Explains Korneyev: “It is known that the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Jews is one of the main arguments for Zionism, which the Zionists—supporters of the Nazis—cynically exploit for their own ends.”

Apart from the Arab nations of the Middle East, the Soviet Union is virtually the only country where the vilest sort of anti-Semitism is promoted at the government level, a point well worth remembering when one next encounters the argument that the Soviet system is much like any other and deserves the legitimacy for which its rulers yearn.

Indeed, in its treatment of the refuseniks, Moscow exhibits the worst features of the two forces which have shaped the modern Soviet state: the xenophobic anti-Semitism of Old Russia and the efficient, calculated cruelty of Communism. That Soviet Jewry has endured in the face of this fearsome combination is one of the most remarkable stories of faith and human courage of our time.

About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.

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