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People Without a Country

The Jews of Silence

by Elie Wiesel
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 143 pp., $4.95

It is still widely believed that everything that happens in the Soviet Union is planned according to some overall theoretical blueprint. Reality is more complex; in their internal policies Soviet leaders have been so preoccupied with economic problems that they have hardly been able in recent decades to pause for reflection and re-examination of anything except the most urgent issues. This much, at any rate, they seem to have in common with political leaders in democratic countries.

There is far less deliberation and planning in the non-economic sphere and far more improvisation than is usually thought. Basic ideological tenets exist, but these are often out-of-date and inapplicable in a modern society. In the absence of a clearly thoughtout policy, decisions are usually deferred, or, if that is impossible, adopted on a trial-and-error basis. This goes for many cultural and social problems; it also applies to the present status and the future position of non-Russians in the Soviet Union, of which (one often forgets) there are some 100 million. Since Stalin wrote on the national question in 1913 there has not been much authoritative guidance, and Stalin’s obiter dicta are no longer authoritative either. Soviet leaders have not been able to make up their minds how much national independence and how much assimilation there ought to be. This, according to some observers, is the reason for the present difficulties of Soviet Jews. Others maintain that the position of the Jews differs from that of all other minorities, and that a more liberal policy in the national question would not necessarily benefit the Jews. There is some truth in this contention, as a comparison between the Jews and Armenians shows. The Armenians, too, have their “diaspora” and their “Israel,” and many of them have relations abroad. Yet they are not suspect in the eyes of the authorities; on the contrary, they are among the most favored minorities. Even their church enjoys a great deal of freedom. It is the misfortune of the Jews that most of them happen to be outside the Soviet Union.

THERE HAVE BEEN in recent years contradictory reports about Russian Jewry; talk about genocide at one extreme, propaganda about their absolute equality and perfect happiness at the other. Mr. Elie Wiesel, the novelist, went to Russia in the late summer of 1965 in an attempt to find the truth beyond these conflicting accounts and the fog of propaganda. He went without introductions and recommendations, resolved to meet, not rabbis and leaders of communities, but rather the anonymous Jews of Russia who hold no position in society. He found a great deal of discrimination and fear, but he also reports that more Soviet Jewish youths have remained Jewish than one could possibly have expected. The best moment in this little book is the description of a dance in the Chasidic tradition by some thirty thousand youngsters in the streets of Moscow on Simhat Torah (the last day of the festival of the Tabernacles):

They came in droves, from university and the factories, from school dormitories and the Komsomol club… But once there, they became a single body, voicing a song of praise to the Jewish people and its will to live. And they were singing “David, King of Israel, lives and endures.” Tomorrow they would descend and scatter, disappear in the innermost parts of Moscow, not to be heard from for another year. But they would return and bring more with them. The line will never break; one who has come will always return…. There was a chorus of voices in a series of questions and answers: “Who are we? Jews! What are we? Jews! What shall we remain? Jews!”

Even so, Mr. Wiesel left Russia disheartened and depressed. He believes that the Jews of Russia, despite the hardships and the fears, will withstand the pressure and emerge victorious. But will the Jews abroad ever be worthy of their trust: “What torments me most is not the Jews of silence I met in Russia, but the silence of the Jews I live among today.”

This is a powerful and moving little book, very well translated from the Hebrew. It is based on mystic belief and one hesitates to discuss it in rational terms. It is pointless to criticize Mr. Wiesel for not bringing to his subject the trained mind of the academic sociologist and political scientist. Jewish history, including much of recent history, defies systematic methods; it is likely that a sensitive poet or writer understands this better than those who put their trust in social surveys and quantification.

But Mr. Wiesel after all saw only one aspect of a complex phenomenon. He met the religious and Yiddish-speaking Jews who are a minority among Soviet Jewry. Most Jews in Russia are culturally assimilated, yet, under present conditions, and in the forseeable future, they cannot be so well integrated. The assumption among many Jewish leaders in the West that Soviet Jews will disappear “unless something is done within the next ten years” is largely unfounded. There are more than enough national and social pressures to prevent this. But the positive content of the sense of Jewish identity in Russia will be small—they will know that they hail from a very ancient people and religious community, whose history is one of great suffering. A Jew, Mr. Wiesel says, is a man who feels himself a Jew. And he quotes a woman in Moscow: “I’ll tell you why I am a Jew. Because I like to sing.” Others may give more sophisticated explanations, but they will mostly refer to the past: ancestry, Jewish history, the killing of six million Jews. But the holocaust already recedes into the distant past insofar as the younger generation is concerned. What meaning then does Jewishness have for the young physicist in Dubna, or the young engineer in Siberia, and the accountant in some provincial village in the Ukraine? The line may not break, but how much significance will it have in daily life—and will it not gradually lose meaning altogether? Admittedly it is a predicament facing not only Russian Jews.

THE MAIN ISSUE is not that certain professions are closed to Soviet Jews and that from time to time newspaper articles are published singling out Jewish villains. The real problem is that the Jews are caught in a vicious circle: those among them who want minority rights—schools, newspapers, and theaters, for instance—cannot get them. They have been arguing that much smaller minorities have been enjoying these rights. But the authorities have refused these demands; what happened under Stalin (they say) is regrettable, but cannot be undone. And the authorities argue that today there is simply no demand for a Jewish culture and a Jewish national life. This has been violently contested; the Volga Germans, after all, exiled by Stalin to Central Asia, did get their schools and literature back in recent years and they now have even TV programs in their native language.

Most Jews, especially the younger ones, would probably not go to synagogue even if there were many more and if there was no risk involved. Nor is their interest in Yiddish culture very deep. Culturally they are fully assimilated to their environment. But their position remains anomalous, for their full integration is impossible: in contrast to America, the Soviet Union is not a melting pot. There is Soviet citizenship, but no Soviet nationality or Soviet language. Everyone except the Jews belongs somewhere; the fact that they speak Russian does not make them Russians. They remain a distinct group, identifiable yet without identity. There is no provision for this in Leninist doctrine or the Soviet Constitution. If the general trend in the Soviet Union were towards national assimilation, one could regard these developments with greater tranquillity: the Jews could then be the first to be denationalized, but others would follow and in a few generations all would be one great harmonious family. But while the Jews are becoming assimilated and are losing their privileges as a minority, there is at present no evidence that the other groups will follow on the road to denationalization. On the contrary, national consciousness has been growing in recent decades among the Russians and the other nationalities. Which means that the Jewish problem will not disappear but may in fact become more acute. A Jew may now have to work harder to make headway professionally, and some key positions may be closed to him. This is annoying, but there are graver injustices in the world. However, there is also the far more sinister prospect that the Jews will continue to be a potential scapegoat in a future Russian winter of discontent.

FOR MANY YEARS Jewish leaders have discussed ways and means to induce the Soviet authorities to change their attitude to the Jewish minority, and incidentally, to modify their anti-Israel policy. Jews in Israel cannot possibly hope to influence Soviet policy; there are only two million of them, and many more Arabs. Jewish communities in the West are in a stronger position. Some of their leaders favor friendly persuasion, unofficial contacts, keeping the Jewish issue out of the Cold War. Much can be said in favor of such a policy, but it has one major flaw; it has been tried for a long time without success. Others believe that only vigorous protests will give results. Mr. Wiesel, too, seems to believe that the future of Soviet Jewry depends almost entirely on what Jews outside Russia will do—or fail to do. I am not at all sure that he is right. Mr. Wiesel says Russian Jews are still afraid; I am not naive enough to argue that this is a conditioned reflex for which there is no longer any objective justification. But this is 1967, not 1952, and the post-Stalin leadership is not completely impervious to demands and pressures from within. To press demands is no doubt risky and could certainly provoke resistance; but it cannot be rejected as hopeless and impossible. All this refers to the Jews who, according to Mr. Wiesel’s definition, want to remain Jews, claiming their right as a minority. The situation of the assimilationists is even more complicated; for their future depends on factors and developments over which they have no control at all—the strengthening of nationalist trends in the world Communist movement following the Sino-Soviet split and the spread of polycentrism. For a Jew, in Sartre’s definition, which is broader than Mr. Wiesel’s, is a man who lives in a society that regards him as such.

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