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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.

  1. *

    See The New York Review (September 25, 1986)

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