Glasnost and the Jews

The invitation I received to visit Moscow seemed itself an expression of glasnost. I first talked about visiting the USSR in Paris in December 1985 at a UNESCO conference on Maimonides.* There I met Vitaly Naumkin, the director of the section on the Arab states at the Oriental Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, who asked me whether I would come to Moscow to lecture and to meet people at the institute. When a formal invitation finally came this past June, a year and a half later, the terms were generous: I was invited to come as the guest of the Oriental Institute and to choose any topic I wanted for a lecture.

When I arrived in Moscow at the end of August, I made it clear that I would try to see as many Jewish refuseniks and human rights activists as I could. No one objected. My hosts at the Oriental Institute had invited me as an academic, but they knew that I am also a vice president of the World Jewish Congress and had spent many years as a member of the executive board of the World Zionist Organization. My hosts had arranged in advance for me to meet some political officials, and the list grew somewhat during the visit, for the Soviets were at least as eager to discuss their own “Jewish problem” as to discuss the politics of the Middle East.

The Soviets continue to chafe under different kinds of pressure from abroad. From the West they are told daily that they ought to let Jews emigrate if they wish, while their Arab allies object to even the slightest move toward Israel. At home, giving the Jews special consideration may dangerously encourage the hopes of other dissident minorities. Such questions have become particularly acute now with the imminent summit meeting between Secretary General Gorbachev and President Reagan. Gorbachev must know that in the US he will face demonstrations against Soviet restrictions on Jewish emigration and human rights generally.

Both Georgi Arbatov, the head of the America-Canada Institute, and Karyn Brutens, the deputy of Anatoly Dobrynin in the foreign department of the Central Committee of the Communist party, vehemently told me that nothing was being done, or would be done, in Moscow to meet Western pressure for concessions on the Jewish question. This is what officials can be expected to say. Virtually every other conversation I had in Moscow made it clear that the authorities were trying to find ways of softening the protests that Gorbachev will face in the US. For Western audiences they were going to play their best cards now; at the same time they wanted to make clear their long-term conception of the place of Jews and other minorities within Gorbachev’s scheme of things. So there was nothing haphazard in suddenly letting out, in September, some of the longstanding Jewish refuseniks, Yosif Begun and Victor Brailovsky and a number of others, while denouncing Zionism with greater fervor than before, and blaming the existence of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union on the actions of the Jews. These seemingly contradictory actions flow from a clearly redefined Jewish policy on the part of the Kremlin in the era of glasnost.

Gorbachev and his closest associates seem persuaded that their new policy can be explained, and defended, both at home and in the West. It made sense for an official Soviet agency, the Oriental Institute, to invite an American Jewish liberal like myself, and to allow him to move about freely. The academics and the government officials I met all seemed eager to talk, and they seemed pleased when I took notes. They must have known that I disagreed with them, and that I intended to take up every point they made with Andrei Sakharov and Yosif Begun and other dissidents; but they wanted me to write about “glasnost and Jews,” nevertheless.

There are now more than two million Jews in the Soviet Union (the official count varies between 1.72 and 1.8 million). Most live in the cities of European Russia though Jews are to be found throughout the USSR. As in the West, they work mostly at white-collar jobs or in the professions. After the Bolshevik revolution, Jews became prominent in the new Soviet bureacracy, but Stalin hated them, and, in his last days, persecuted them with murderous venom. Even after his death in 1953, it became more difficult for young Jews to enter the universities and to find a place in the professions. This unofficial quota system was in effect an attack on most Soviet Jews because the opportunities that had existed for their parents were being closed to them.

Most Soviet Jews seem largely assimilated to the secular Soviet system. But a considerable minority—no one knows just how many—continue to have strong ties to the Jewish religion and believe the Jews make up an authentic national group. These attachments grew stronger after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and especially after its victory in the Six Day War of 1967. In retrospect we can guess that there was in the USSR an ideologically and culturally committed Zionist minority of perhaps 500,000 Jews, of which nearly half have by now been allowed to emigrate. Some 250,000 to 300,000 “Jewish Jews” would probably want to leave for Israel or for other countries where they could live openly as Jews. About one third of the refuseniks who are being allowed to emigrate are choosing to go to Israel; the rest are going to Europe and the US.

A third element of the “Jewish problem” derives from the Jewish intellectuals who take part in political and moral resistance to the regime. Intellectuals such as David Markish, son of the Yiddish writer Peretz Markish, whom Stalin murdered, have been sent abroad; others, such as the mathematician Naum Meiman, remain, and continue to be a source of ferment. Their numbers are small, but such people are in the habit of writing petitions of protest and giving press conferences. Meiman is a particularly tragic figure, for his wife recently died of cancer in Washington, DC, three weeks after she was finally allowed to leave, alone, for the West. On the day I left Moscow he came to see me as he had seen many other visitors from the West over the years. There may be glasnost, he said to me, but it had not been extended to him. He is estranged from Andrei Sakharov, for Sakharov believes some real changes have taken place under Gorbachev, while Meiman sees only cosmetic differences. I felt great sympathy for Meiman but I was convinced by Sakharov’s view that some new realities in the Soviet Union have made the continuing battle for human rights more rather than less hopeful, even though the prospects for personal freedom were still remote.

By the time I left, it was clear to me that glasnost was more than a surface maneuver, but I was not at all sure that it was unreservedly “good for the Jews.” Before the proclamation of glasnost, the Soviet authorities wrestling with various aspects of the “Jewish problem” had not begun to solve it. They had not gotten the thanks that they thought they deserved for their generosity in letting more than a quarter of a million Jews leave during the 1970s and 1980s—an exception to their well-known policy of restricting all emigration. The Jewish question needed to be rethought, and that is precisely what Gorbachev has done.

Gorbachev stated the basic premises of the new policy in his address in January 1987 to the Communist Party Central Committee. Gorbachev spoke with undisguised concern about the nationality question. The Soviet Union, he suggested, could be destroyed by nationalism, by the claims of such groups as the Ukrainians, the Latvians, and a host of others for independence. He insisted that the various nationalities have to behave as part of the Soviet system. To that end, Gorbachev was ready to satisfy some of the demands of the national groups for greater autonomy and for more recognition of their cultures. But—and this he could not say—the dominant element in the Soviet Union had to remain Russian.

Gorbachev has cause for worry. The Russians will soon no longer be an absolute majority of the population. In the last census of 1979 they made up between 51 and 52 percent of the population, but their relative numbers are declining. Agitation for national recognition and autonomy are increasing among the minorities. Yosif Begun, the committed Zionist who spent three and a half years in jail for his beliefs, told me that more than half of the political prisoners he encountered were nationalists from one or another ethnic group.

Some of these pressures can be relieved without fundamental concessions or without creating new problems. The Soviets continue to let some Armenians out—mainly people who came back to the homeland after 1945, or their descendants, who are now unhappy in the USSR. These Armenians have emigrated quietly. Recently, more former Volga Germans have been allowed to leave—the current rate is over fifteen hundred a month—than any other group. This emigration, too, is a relatively discreet one, and it is calculated to help increase Soviet influence in West Germany. The Jews remain a problem. There is nothing quiet about the demand in Moscow, New York, and Jerusalem, to “let my people go.” Short of expulsion, no matter how many Jews may emigrate, a sizable minority will remain within the Soviet Union, and they don’t fit into the Soviet idea of nationality. They have forgotten Yiddish—fewer than ten thousand Jews live in the Yiddish-speaking enclave Stalin set up in remote Biro-Bidjan on the Chinese border. They have been prevented from learning Hebrew, although the harassment of those who try to do so has diminished recently. They have no territory in the Soviet Union, and many of them feel they have a homeland outside it.

In his January speech to the Party Central Committee, Gorbachev denounced “Zionism and anti-Semitism” in the same breath. Putting the two together has been a well-established Soviet cliché, but Gorbachev’s remark was not perfunctory. Gorbachev hopes to put an end to the status of Jews as a special case, both as Zionists and as the targets of anti-Semitism. This past March, the authorities promised Edgar Bronfman, the president of the World Jewish Congress, and Morris Abram, the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, that they would allow almost all Jews who had been refused visas—“refuseniks”—to emigrate. The exact number of refuseniks remains in question. This spring the State Department gave the USSR a list of 11,526 refuseniks who were known to the US authorities. In the USSR I heard talk that there are actually 22,000 refuseniks, most of whom are Jews. The current emigration, at the rate of 800 a month, has been going on since March. Some Jewish families with very close relatives abroad (and not only in Israel) are being permitted to leave. A few are going directly to the United States—not first to Vienna on an Israeli visa.

This renewed emigration, however, is not a sign that the Russians intend to open the doors widely. On the contrary, the government seems to want to impose on Jews the same restrictions on movement abroad, and on emigration, that apply to everybody else. After the first group of some 8,000 or more Jews leaves, Gorbachev will not close off Jewish emigration entirely; a few of the troublesome Jews with Zionist or religious commitments will, no doubt, continue to be allowed out. But there is no chance that a general right of emigration to Israel will be recognized.

Indeed, the point of greatest irritation for Gorbachev’s regime is the notion that Israel is “the homeland of the Jews.” The higher up I got in the Soviet hierarchy, the more pointed was the insistence that the Soviet Union refused to accept the claim that the Soviet Jews were “hinterland for Israel.” I was told more than once that Zionism, a demand for the right of repatriation of those Soviet Jews who regarded themselves as belonging to Israel, was the prime cause of whatever anti-Semitism there was in the country. What about Pamyat, the new nationalist movement that uses traditional anti-Semitic rhetoric, I asked. No doubt Pamyat had to be fought, I was told, but the continuing presence of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union was not connected with the homegrown traditions that had existed in Russia for centuries. The Zionists, so the officials said, were to blame for the current anti-Semitism, for they were preaching the abandonment of the Soviet homeland. This indeed is what the leaders of the regime-sponsored “Jewish Anti-Zionist Committee” wrote to Secretary Shultz in April when he was in Moscow, just before he invited prominent refuseniks to a Passover seder at the US embassy.

Even if Zionist sentiment were eradicated, the Jews would remain an anomaly in the Soviet Union. The Communist authorities have never been able to fit a people who mostly speak Russian and have no lands of their own into their system for dealing with nationalities. They tried to do so in the 1920s and 1930s, when Yiddish was declared the language of the Jews, the only legal language, and Biro-Bidjan was created as a Jewish settlement. Yiddish is now gone, through assimilation, and through Stalin’s persecution of the Jews and his murder of many Yiddish writers; the most committed Jews now want to express themselves in Hebrew. Although Gorbachev is granting them more religious and cultural freedom, the real meaning of his policy should not be mistaken; he seeks to promote the gradual assimilation of the Jews. Some religious needs, and some remaining nostalgia for the Jewish past in the shtetl, will be satisfied; but the regime hopes that any sharply identifiable Jewish qualities will be diluted and eventually disappear in Soviet Jewry.

At the moment some interesting and even astonishing progress is being made in easing the restrictions on Jewish life in the Soviet Union. Some young people are rebuilding the Marina Roscha synagogue in the Moscow suburbs, and no one stops them. The ritual bath (mikvah) in that synagogue is again open after having once been stuffed with asphalt by the KGB. There have been no new arrests, and no new searches.

Vladimir Slepak, a well-known refusenik, told me the most unexpected of these new stories: in the first days of September, three much-persecuted refuseniks were called in by the KGB and were given apologies for the confiscation and “loss” of their property, including cameras, tape recorders, and record players, which, it was claimed, the dissidents were using to propagate their teachings. The authorities said that they could not now find their possessions and paid thousands of rubles in compensation. A number of Jewish academics are more open about their interest in carrying Jewish scholarship outside the officially approved research institutions. About a dozen have formed a group that meets without having any formal status or organization, but its existence is no secret. Belonging to this group has seemingly not hurt the careers of people who have jobs in the official Soviet scholarly establishment.

It is conceivable that more such “private enterprise” in the field of Jewish religion and culture will be possible for those who are willing to risk it. The Russian Orthodox Church and the Baptists are now more free to establish new institutions if people want them. Why not the Jews? The Soviet officials I talked to did not dismiss this argument. They observed that several weeks ago Soviet national television showed an excellent performance of Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye in Russian (the Yiddish original was vulgarized in America as Fiddler on the Roof). Moreover, a Jewish musical troupe from Biro-Bidjan appeared on television to sing Yiddish songs. This group recently toured the US.

How much more Jewish cultural activity will be permitted is far from certain, but the atmosphere is one of thaw in which the Soviet authorities want liberalization of conditions for Jews within Soviet borders to be publicized internationally. It was therefore all the more surprising that none of my Soviet interlocutors told me that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of visas granted to Russians who want to visit relatives or simply travel abroad. Diplomats in Western embassies told me that some 6,000 visas for such travel have been granted so far this year, whereas last year there were very few. Everyone who knows these applicants agrees that a very large proportion of those who are being allowed to travel are Jews.

The hard-liners among the refuseniks insist that all of the measures I have mentioned are essentially cosmetic. The kosher restaurant that is promised (and will probably open soon, with food imported from Budapest) will only impress the tourists from America, they say; so will the two Jewish theaters in Moscow, one of which seems always to be touring abroad. The refuseniks are not much cheered even by the news that officially approved Jewish cultural centers will soon be opened in Leningrad and Minsk. For Russian Jews who take Jewish culture seriously, the Jewish past is not to be identified with Tevye and with guitars playing “tombalalaika.” Hebrew, both classical and modern, is now the Jewish national language. It is literature written in that language through the centuries that Jews should be able to teach and learn in cultural centers they themselves organize and control. For the authorities this is a “Zionist” demand, since it brings the state of Israel into the Soviet picture as the center of Hebraic learning and culture. The Soviet government has not yet decided what to do about “Zionism,” but the era of brutal repression and jailings for those who want to be “Jewish Jews” seems over.

One apparent strategy of the regime is to allow almost all of the longstanding refuseniks to leave for Israel. By doing so it would remove a Jewish leadership that no longer has anything to lose in the Soviet Union and has been increasingly emboldened by glasnost to express its Jewishness more publicly. The morning that I left the Soviet Union, Yosif Begun and Victor Brailovsky, two of the “hardest” cases, had been told that they were free to leave. Two nights before I had been Begun’s guest at an emotional midnight supper. He had recently come back from jail where he had been sent for teaching Hebrew to a small group in Moscow. In jail Begun had turned religious. On his return to Moscow he grew a beard and now, even on the Moscow streets, he always keeps his head covered with a knitted skullcap, while his wife has taken to wearing the wig of Orthodox Jewish women.

Begun is the closest thing to an unofficial rabbi that exists in Moscow today. He told me that a Jewish lending library will soon open in Moscow and a Moscow-Jewish Association is being organized. Such activities are now legal, but they clearly trouble the regime. The authorities fear that if they continue, the less committed Jews will become persuaded that their Jewishness should be expressed through learning Hebrew and through links with the world Jewish community, which regards Israel as its emotional center. It therefore makes sense, from the Soviet point of view, to let out the leaders of Jewish cultural activities, the very refuseniks who have been punished for many years by being denied visas.

This seems all the more likely since Gorbachev announced in October 1985 in Paris that some Soviet citizens who had been prevented from leaving because they once knew state secrets would now be allowed to leave after at most ten years. When I talked to various Party members I said it was ridiculous to assume that people who had not worked for fifteen years or more had any secrets worth telling. Now that Begun and Brailovsky are freed, the Soviet officials who come to the US should, in the logic of the situation, want to avoid being greeted with banners demanding that they also “free Ida Nudel,” or Vladimir Slepak, Alexander Lerner, Pavel Abramovitch, and Naum Meiman, among others. If they do allow such refuseniks to leave, it will diminish the numbers of those who are not willing to accept the kind of Jewish identity that the Soviets will permit.

For the large numbers of Jews who are not clamoring to leave, the chief complaint remains the academic and professional discrimination that has pervaded the Soviet system in the last two decades, and here, too, a new approach can be attributed to glasnost. All of the Jews with whom I talked, and some non-Jews among the human rights dissidents, said that Jews were systematically excluded from the best schools and, thus, from the professions. I met several brilliant younger Jewish scholars who have been awarded higher degrees recently, but no one doubts that discrimination has been widespread.

During the last twenty years a deliberate effort has been made to decrease the importance of minorities, such as the Armenians, the Georgians, and especially the Jews, in the Soviet intelligentsia in favor of Russians. Many young Jews who got top grades in the exact sciences were not admitted to the Moscow University; often they were “failed” on essay questions in the obligatory course on Marxism-Leninism. Now Jewish students are being admitted to the university in increasing numbers. This quiet change is an important signal, for it encourages Jews who have wanted to emigrate to remain in order to give their children a better chance.

There are also rumors in Moscow that a change is being contemplated in the internal passport, the identification card that every Soviet citizen must carry. Point 5, which specifies national identity, may be eliminated. Since this would make it easier for Jews to “disappear” among the Russian population, it is not likely to happen, at least not soon. Still, I heard the rumor that in outlying regions, where the dominance of Russians is endangered, some young Jews have quietly been offered the opportunity to register as Russians. The conflict between the desire to Russify and the desire to normalize the Jewish situation by giving the Jews equal opportunity will continue to be a serious, and probably insoluble, dilemma for the Soviets.

What of the future? There will be a few more synagogues in the Soviet Union, and books of Jewish interest will be published. It is even possible that an officially sanctioned council of synagogues will be permitted. A new dialectic of anti-Semitism is emerging. Enough official anti-Zionism will be expressed to scare those who might want to be “Zionists,” but hatred of Jews will be denounced and kept within bounds by the authorities. Thus most of the nearly 400,000 Jews still in the USSR who once received preliminary immigration papers from Israel may be persuaded to drop their plans for leaving. The rest of Soviet Jewry, more than one and a half million people, who have remained quiet, will be quieter still. The “Jewish question” is thus being managed in a more sophisticated way, without brutality and even with considerable decency, but on the assumption that Soviet Jews are to be detached from the main body of world Jewry, and from their own historic roots in the Hebraic religious and cultural tradition.

True, many Jews in the West are making much the same choice through active or passive assimilation, but the two situations are obviously different, since Western Jews are not only free to be as Jewish as they want, but also to persuade others by teaching and by personal example. In the days of glasnost, there is more freedom of choice than before, but the entire Soviet system is being marshaled to prevent a distinctive, proud, sharply defined Jewish community from emerging—just as the regime is trying to prevent comparable kinds of self-assertion on the part of its other national groups.

Improvement in the situation of Jews during glasnost depends on the continuing success of Gorbachev. Some of the people with whom I talked believe that he will not last and that after him the situation of the Jews will be radically worse. The darkest pessimists fear that he will be unable to improve the Soviet economy and that in the turmoil that follows the Jews will be made scapegoats. Anti-Semites would find it convenient to insist, however absurdly, that the Gorbachev regime was an invention of Jewish intellectuals. Andrei Sakharov seems to me right, beyond any doubt, when he insists that all those who care about human rights, both individual and national, must hope for Gorbachev’s success, and that the pressure for human rights in the Soviet Union must continue. With all his faults, this “czar” is better than the one who is likely to follow, and he has made rhetorical commitments on human rights he should be pressed to fulfill. The Soviets want very much to convene an international conference on human rights in Moscow next year. Foreign governments and human rights organizations should assert that they have a price for taking part in such a conference—real freedoms for individuals in the Soviet Union and, especially, the right of people to associate freely on their own terms.

The Soviet Union now allows Volga Germans who have not lived in Germany for centuries to be reunited with their own people in Western Germany. By what logic can it insist that Jews have no right to make comparable demands to leave for Israel? Clearly emigration of national groups is allowed if it suits the foreign policy of the USSR. In the glow of the coming INF agreement, the US and the Soviet Union have just announced that a liaison office is being set up in Moscow to consult on emigration matters. The Americans should not limit the concerns of this office to the refuseniks. The broader issues at stake are the right of emigration and of free expression of individuals and groups. A Soviet government that denies these values, and thus questions the legitimacy of the ties of Jews to Israel, would hardly be a convincing participant in a Middle East peace conference. By the same token, Soviet cooperation on these questions could help break the logjam in the Middle East.

The Jews in the Soviet Union will remain in a unique position, notwithstanding the new policies of the regime to let the hard cases out and encourage the rest to conform to gray Soviet standards of assimilation. The “Jewish problem” cannot be solved within the limits of glasnost as it is defined today. For Jews to be themselves in the Soviet Union, the structure of the Communist state would have to change: it would have to relinquish its ultimate claim of control over all the loyalties of its citizens. As Gorbachev insisted in his speech to the Party Central Committee, Marxism-Leninism sets the limits of glasnost; but people who do not want to live under such limits will want to leave. The untidiness of Western democracy will continue to attract not only many Soviet Jews, but also some of the most talented people within the Soviet Union. Gorbachev has opened some doors with glasnost. He may fail; or he may have started a revolution which he will not be able to control; or he may be able to show his detractors that increasing “openness” has advantages for the USSR both at home and abroad.


No Such Office March 3, 1988

  1. *

    See The New York Review (September 25, 1986)