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 Basic ideological tenets exist, but these are often out-of-date and inapplicable in a modern society.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,…

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