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The Soviet Jews

The Soviet Cage: Anti-Semitism in Russia

by William Korey
Viking, 369 pp., $12.50

Jewish Nationality and Soviet Politics: The Jewish Sections of the CPSU, 1917-1930

by Zvi Y. Gitelman
Princeton, 488 pp., $20.00

Perhaps it is the natural order of things for Jews to be disliked by the members of the majority community among whom they live. A minority, and especially a minority with distinctive physical and social features, is always at risk in this respect: the vulgar masses will readily deride and insult anyone who is at all different, if only as a means to bolster their own sense of superiority and togetherness—unless restrained from doing so by education, social mores, or the law. In Russia there were some extra reasons which made the country particularly prone to widespread anti-Semitism—a superstitious and ignorant peasantry, a nationalistic church, the fact that Jews were by law and by custom maintained as a race apart and actively prevented from assimilating, their distinctive language, clothing, habits, and diet.

Yet how little point there is in trying to find reasons for Russian (or any other) anti-Semitism is shown in a few fascinating pages of Mr. Korey’s excellent new study of current Soviet anti-Semitism. He compares the popular reasons which Russians give for disliking Jews nowadays and under the old regime. One would have thought that fifty-six years of Marxism-Leninism (or whatever it should be called), of “progressive” education, of enforced atheism, of changed social conditions among both Russians and Jews, of the great expansion of assimilation would, at the very least, have led to a change in popular myths about the Jews. Not a bit of it—the reasons for dislike remain virtually the same. The Jews are exclusive and tend to keep to themselves, they are dishonest and manage to exploit others, they shirk their public obligations and feather their own nests, and they avoid physical work if they can.

There are, of course, more exceptional, extreme, and eccentric attitudes. The writer Rozanov maintained that he had reliable information that Jews use the blood of a Christian child for their Passover ceremonial, and half a century or more later, after the Second World War, one of the Soviet refugees interviewed in the course of an interviewing project organized by Harvard claimed to have witnessed this Jewish ceremonial “with my own eyes.”

But it is not the existence of anti-Semitism that matters. What matters is the state of public mores in relation to anti-Semitism, and the extent to which the law of a country will promote the equality of all minorities before the law. Social inequality is of relatively little importance. It matters a great deal if Jews are excluded from education or the professions or are denied protection against insults or even violence; it matters a great deal if they are refused the liberty to speak, teach, or learn Yiddish or Hebrew, if they so wish, or to practice their religious ceremonials. It matters not at all, in my view, if they are refused membership of certain clubs: that is a matter of good taste, and the majority are entitled to behave with bad taste or bad manners if they so wish.

The Russian Jew, or Soviet Jew, today, had or has three inalienable rights if the ordinary standards of Western civilization are to be regarded as applicable to Russia, old or new: the right to assimilate without suffering any kind of discrimination; the right to practice the Jewish faith; and the right to pursue Jewish culture. There has never been any period in the history of Russia when a Jew has enjoyed all these three rights. They are essentially rights which apply specifically to the peculiar position of Jews in Soviet society today—a religious as much as, or even more than, a national minority, without territory of its own, whose members as often as not are not even conscious of Jewishness, or if they are, above all desire to be considered Russians like other Russians.

The Soviet authorities have singled the Jews out for particularly oppressive treatment in the terms of their own nationality laws. On the one hand they deny to the Jews, on different pretexts varying in their degrees of chicanery, the national minority rights of education, language, and culture which they grudgingly concede to other minorities. On the other hand, since 1932, that is to say two years before the setting up of the quite ridiculously unreal Jewish Autonomous Republic of Birobidjan (in which there are very few Jews), they have insisted on the entry “Jew” in the space in the internal passport labeled “nationality.” In this way they have made sure that, for example, a Jew who has been born and bred in Leningrad, is procommunist and atheist, and completely Russian by education and culture, will often be insulted and discriminated against, and no doubt turned into an Israeli nationalist. Such is the stupidity of a socialist police state in dealing with national minorities—a worthy successor of the Imperial police state, which at any rate accepted Jews as equals in all respects if they became converted to the official national religion, but turned many more into revolutionaries.

In the past few years many Soviet Jews, and Jews and non-Jews outside the Soviet Union on their behalf, have been asserting a fourth right, the right to emigrate to Israel. Mr. Korey’s book is indeed primarily devoted to this question, though his balanced and erudite treatment of the problem does not ignore the question of the great majority of Soviet Jews who do not wish to emigrate. Now, from the point of view of Israel and Zionism generally, Jews all over the world are regarded as one people, owing primary loyalty to Israel, and the right to emigrate to Israel from the Soviet Union if one is a Jew becomes quite logical. This is generally the way in which the right is asserted by those Soviet Jews who wish to emigrate.

From the Soviet point of view this demand is regarded as disloyal and anti-Soviet—hence the harassment and persecution of those who apply to emigrate and of their families, the fake trials which have been staged, and the savage sentences. (This sordid chapter of recent Soviet history has been particularly well studied by Mr. Korey.) But actually the right to emigrate from the Soviet Union is in no way peculiar to the Jews. It should apply equally to Jews and non-Jews alike, if the many international obligations subscribed to by the Soviet authorities under United Nations auspices have any meaning whatever—in other words, the Ukrainian from Kiev should have as much right to join his relatives in Toronto as the Jew from Kiev to join his relatives in Tel Aviv. There is therefore no particular need to invoke the Zionist view of Jewry in order to justify the right of any Soviet Jew to emigrate.

The answer to present day questions usually lies in the past, and a recent study by Zvi Gitelman of the early period in the life of Soviet Jewry (1917-1930) is therefore particularly welcome. It is detailed, fully documented, balanced, and scholarly, and should become the standard historical study of this period in the English language for some time to come. The book is concerned mainly with the so-called Jewish sections of the Communist Party whose task it was to transform the overwhelmingly Yiddish-speaking, religiously orthodox mass of Russian Jewry into good Soviet citizens. The fanatically atheist communists who made up the Evsektsiia (as the Jewish sections were called) were 100 percent assimilationists who confidently believed, with the unrealistic optimism which always characterizes the dawn of socialism, that the complete absorption of the Jews into the kind of supranational Soviet life that was destined to supersede outmoded nationalism was only a matter of time.

Meanwhile, for purely practical reasons, Soviet Jews enjoyed a period of relative tolerance under the rule of the Evsektsiia, which they had not enjoyed before, and have not enjoyed since. For one thing, sheer necessity dictated the tolerance of Yiddish schools and culture, a tolerance which survived the liquidation of the Evsektsiia and indeed lasted until the big break in Soviet policy toward the Jews which took place after the war. (In 1926 over 70 percent of Soviet Jews indicated Yiddish as their mother tongue; today the same percentage is at most 17 percent, and possibly smaller.) Again, the policy of encouraging or even enforcing assimilation, which was official Bolshevik policy from the start, was to some extent tempered by the fact that all overt manifestations of anti-Semitism (except such as were actually instigated by the authorities—as happened for example in the campaign against Trotsky at the end of the Twenties) were severely put down. How far this policy was dictated by love of Jews is another matter: the main reason for it was that anti-Semitism and anticommunism were often indistinguishable because of the comparatively large number (much magnified by popular imagination) of Jews active in Soviet official life, and particularly in the security service.

Assimilation, a big decline in the use of Yiddish, and above all the virtual elimination of Jews from positions of any prominence in the Party and the police during the course of the terror of the Thirties all led to a drastic change of policy during and especially after the war. Ever-present anti-Semitism was no longer a menace to the communists, and indeed presented a number of attractions in a police state. The Jews offered a convenient scapegoat in such campaigns as the one that was conducted against so-called economic crimes, in which the overwhelming majority of defendants (at any rate as publicized) were plainly identified as Jews. The intended moral was plain: decent Russians do not cheat and speculate, this is the natural propensity of the Jew.

Indifference to or encouragement of anti-Jewish discrimination became the usual practice in education and in many fields of employment. (Not all—the Soviet authorities and their apologists can always quote impressive percentages of Jews in the arts or the law. How, one wonders, do they know the number of Jews? It would be impossible to calculate this kind of percentage in England.) Again, this discrimination was, and is, no doubt very popular with many non-Jews who are always ready to be persuaded that they are being kept out of their rightful inheritance by a Jewish conspiracy rather than by their own inadequacies.

A new dimension to the whole problem is presented by Zionism and Israel. Anti-Zionism is not new in Soviet practice, though it is of interest to note that the Communist Party seems to have been quite tolerant of Zionists in the early years until (as Mr. Gitelman shows) it was persuaded to persecute them by the zealots of the Evsektsiia. In general, the melancholy lesson to be derived from Mr. Gitelman’s careful study is that much of the style of current Soviet anti-Semitism (vicious pornographic cartoons about immoral rabbis, antireligious vulgarity, and the like) originated in the Evsektsiia. On the other hand, the attempt of the Evsektsiia fanatics to create a secular Soviet Yiddish culture was a dismal failure, as one could have expected. For there are, in truth, only three possible ways of life for the Soviet Jewish minority: complete assimilation; assimilation in most respects, side by side with the pursuit of Jewish religious or Jewish secular culture, or both; and emigration to Israel.

This, however, is to look at the question from the Jewish point of view—though it should be obvious that all three possibilities are perfectly compatible with the security and prosperity of the Soviet state, and only appear otherwise to the minds of Soviet policemen distorted by dogma, superstition, propaganda, fear, and stupidity. It is also obvious by now that the number wishing to emigrate to Israel (100,000, perhaps many more) would have been very much smaller had it not been for anti-Jewish discrimination, and tolerated or encouraged anti-Semitism.

Looked at from the Soviet point of view, the days when the zealots of the Evsektsiia pursued a policy toward the Jews which, however nonsensical, did represent some kind of an attempt to solve a minority problem, are long over. Soviet Jews, like the rest of the population for that matter, are expendable and are of relevance only in the pursuit of some kind of dimly conceived social purpose, of which the only clearly discernible outlines are material progress at home and expansion abroad. Jews can sometimes be useful for this purpose—as scientists, for example, or in helping to attract American capital; or they can be a security risk with their relatives abroad, or their hankerings for Israel. In between these two positions, they can attract suspicion by showing an interest in Yiddish folksongs or in matzoth at Passover time, because, as every Soviet policeman knows, in the case of the Jews this is the first step to Zionism or worse. And then, of course, Jews as an object of popular dislike can occasionally be quite useful as what Stalin once described as a “lightning conductor”—to direct discontent into what is regarded as a harmless channel. This is the sum total of Soviet policy toward the Jews, and speculation about communist theories of nationality and the like in the case of the Jews is a naïve waste of time.

The years of the war and the few years after the war were very revealing of this pragmatic Soviet attitude to Jews. As is widely known, the years of the war gave a great impetus to folk anti-Semitism both in the army and at home in the Soviet Union which the authorities did nothing to discourage. The German occupation no doubt left its heritage; and the virtual silence of the Soviet authorities on the fate which befell the Jewish inhabitants of occupied Russia (a silence largely maintained to this day) made the tragedy even more bitter for Soviet Jewry to bear. The seeds of the rejection by many Soviet Jews of their Soviet homeland which we are witnessing today were sown in the war.

However, while the war was raging, and particularly while victory over Germany was in doubt, the Soviet authorities decided that the Jews could be put to a useful purpose for mobilizing Jewish capital and support for the Soviet war effort overseas. An abortive scheme, the brain-child of Beria, got no further than the arrest and murder in 1941 of Erlich and Alter, the two socialist leaders who had been released from prison and persuaded that they would be allowed to organize an international Jewish appeal. The following year there was launched, with great publicity, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC). Its secretary was a trusted police agent, and the members of the committee were all faithful supporters of the Soviet regime, many of them Jews in little more than name.

While the war lasted the committee certainly played some slight role in raising money and support for the Soviet Union, and it seems clear that the Soviet authorities believed for some years after the war that this novel Jewish organization would serve the useful purpose of rallying the Jewish left wing overseas to the support of the Soviet Union. However, the disadvantage from the Soviet point of view was that the committee was beginning, by its very existence and by its open propagation of the view that Soviet Jewry was a part of world Jewry, to encourage undesirable Jewish nationalism. The decision to liquidate the JAC may have been taken secretly by the time its chairman, the actor manager Mikhoels, was murdered in January, 1948, though the facts that the pretense was kept up that he had died as the result of an accident and that he was given a state funeral suggest that policy was still not finally settled.

The decision to put an end to the JAC must have been clinched by the disappointment of the high expectations which the Soviet Union had placed on the sound and progressive pro-Soviet nature of the new state of Israel, and especially by the spontaneous welcome accorded by Jews in the streets of Moscow to the first Israeli ambassador to the USSR in October, 1948—a shattering event in the Soviet Union of Stalin’s day, when fear of any spontaneous action was at its highest. By the end of the year, the JAC had been dissolved and all its leaders arrested. In one form or another waves of more or less virulent anti-Semitism, as thinly disguised in 1949 as “anticosmopolitanism” as it is today as “anti-Zionism,” have continued unabated. Jewish culture was suppressed from then on and its main leaders secretly shot in 1952 after spending years in the concentration camps. The grotesque “Doctors Plot” which graced the last months of Stalin’s life and might well have become the signal for mass pogroms was disclaimed and put to an end immediately after Stalin’s death.

But this police exercise was directed against Beria (as the complicated evidence shows when it is disentangled) much more than against the Jews, who were only an incidental aspect of it. The dismantling of the “plot” may have stopped the outbreak of violent pogroms: it certainly did not stop the policy of more or less open anti-Semitism. Popular anti-Semitism, unrestrained by the authorities, and discrimination bred pro-Israeli Jewish nationalism, which derived new strength from the Six Day War. Nationalism bred further Soviet anti-Semitism, now barely disguised as “anti-Zionism,” but increasingly reminiscent in style of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and Der Stürmer. The Wechselwirkung is in full swing. What happens now?

The courageous struggle of Soviet Jews, in the face of all the persecution and harassment which they have to endure, to assert their right to emigrate to Israel is well enough known. It is nonetheless a sobering experience for anyone who may still harbor illusions about modern civilization to read Mr. Korey’s calm and undramatic account of what has been happening in the last few years. However, the fact remains that tens of thousands of Jews have got out, and it seems very probable that tens of thousands more will get out in the future. The Soviet Jews are privileged in this respect as compared with, say, the Ukrainians or the Crimean Tatars who got nothing like the support and publicity abroad for their struggle, but are no better off. The United Nations and, latterly, the United States Congress have waged battle on the side of the Soviet Jews who wish to emigrate. When Soviet need for American trade and capital is as great as it is, it is obvious that the influence of the United States on the fate of Soviet Jewry can be enormous.

There are those who pin their faith on the evolution of liberalism in the Soviet Union. This is an improbable, but not impossible hope for the remote future. The darling of the French left, Jean-Paul Sartre, believes that before a civilized Soviet policy toward the Jews is adopted in the Soviet Union “the Soviet laboring classes [must] first recover the power of which they have been robbed.”* This is a view of quite egregious silliness, both because the Soviet “laboring classes” have never in the whole history of Russia had any power of which they could be “robbed,” and because anyone who knows Soviet conditions is aware that the most rabid anti-Semitism is to be found precisely among the “laboring classes.”

It is better to shed illusions and to recognize the one hard fact which is beyond dispute: the only factor which is known to have influenced Soviet behavior toward its Jewish population in the past fifty-six years has been pressure exercised by the outside world in general and recently by the United States in particular. One thing that events of the past few years have done is to scotch finally the legend, sedulously spread by Soviet agents of influence, and until recently avidly swallowed by some leaders of the Jewish communities in the diaspora, that the only way to help Soviet Jews was to keep quiet about Soviet anti-Semitism. Communists do not worry about “face”: they calculate realistically the price they have to pay for what they want badly enough. A few tens of thousands of Jews in return for American trade and investment, for example, is very good business. But the real problem is presented not by the Jews who will be allowed out but by those who will remain behind.

Both Israel and to some extent the Jewish communities behave as if the only problem were to help those Soviet Jews who wish to do so to emigrate, and ignore the much greater problem of what will happen to those who stay, to those who either wish to become or remain assimilated Soviet citizens, or to live as Jews in their own homeland. No one has ever suggested that this category of Jews is anything other than the great majority, numbered in millions. What is going to happen to these people when the Soviet Union decides that it has let out a sufficient number of Jews to satisfy American critics, or to get rid of the troublemakers, or to appease foreign left-wing opinion, or whatever motive it may be acting on? Millions of Soviet Jews will then be at the mercy of a police regime, infuriated by the fact that it has had to release its hold over the lucky ones who escaped, and ready to exact vengeance on those who are left behind.

Moreover, if the present phase of so-called détente continues it will become increasingly difficult for Western governments to intervene on behalf of Soviet Jews without facing accusations of reviving the cold war, and hence risking alienation of support from their own public which has been deluded into believing that détente really means peaceful and friendly relations with the USSR. The Soviet Union may well calculate that by letting a hundred or perhaps a hundred and fifty thousand Jews go to Israel it will be left in peace to solve its Jewish problem in its own way. The world Jewish communities, especially in Israel and in the United States, have hitherto, by placing the emphasis solely on the question of Jewish emigration, given the Soviet authorities every reason to believe that this calculation is correct. The liberties, if not the lives, of Soviet Jews in the years to come will depend on the determination of the United States (since no other power has comparable economic leverage over the Soviet Union) to prove convincingly to the Soviet authorities that this calculation is wrong.

  1. *

    In a discussion of the 1970 Leningrad Trials of Jews in New Outlook.

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