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Though Things Are Better, the Fear Remains for Soviet Jews

November 06, 1987|ABRAHAM COOPER | Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Summit III's focus on a historic nuclear missile accord notwithstanding, advocates for Soviet Jewry will converge on our nation's capital Dec. 6 seeking once again to focus world opinion on the continued plight of this beleaguered minority.

The chants of "Never again" and "Let my people go" will be led by powerful symbols of defiance and hope--Natan and Avital Sharansky, Ida Nudel and Josef Mendelevitch. For more than a decade these "prisoners of conscience" defied an unyielding totalitarian system, electrified world Jewry and galvanized sustained action in the West. From presidents and Popes to European communist leaders, Soviet diplomats were never far from a sustained, full-court press that contributed to an unprecedented, if erratic, flow of emigration of more than 300,000 refuseniks, dissidents, ethnic Germans and Armenians.

Yet, ironically, it is the very presence of the who's who of ex-refuseniks in Washington that will highlight the changes and challenges posed by the style and substance of Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Against the backdrop of a vigorous and youthful image and the tantalizing promise of glasnost and perestroika, Gorbachev has made some shrewd and bold moves on the Soviet Jewry front.

For the first time since the 1917 Revolution, there are no known "prisoners of Zion" languishing in the Soviet Gulag. A temporary ploy? Perhaps, but a welcomed respite. Further, if current trends hold, virtually all long-term refuseniks--about 10,000 to 11,000 Jews--will be emigrating from the Soviet Union during the next year. And there are signs that official social and economic discrimination against Jews in education and job placement are being reduced.

Human-rights strategists have this to consider and more. There is opposition to Gorbachev from the old guard in Moscow. From ideological purists to entrenched bureaucrats, there are many powerful individuals who would like nothing better than a summit that degenerates into a Reykjavik-type fiasco. And despite all the talk on restructuring, the economy under Gorbachev is worse off than it was even two years ago. So behind all the bravado, there lurks a question mark over Gorbachev's ability to persevere. And, if the more reactionary elements succeed in toppling him, the consequences for Jews could be catastrophic.

Why not give Gorbachev a free ride--this one time?

Because so far, not even the most liberal visions of glasnost hold out any real hope for the future spiritual and cultural needs of Soviet Jewry. Because, despite the release of prominent refuseniks like Vladimir Slepak and Josef Begun, despite 10 years of promise and negotiations within the Helsinki process, no real progress on the basic issue of free emigration has yet to be reached. To the contrary, new "immigration reforms" actually are designed to discourage the thousands of Soviet Jews applying for repatriation to Israel. Further, there are no legislative guidelines to limit or even define the terrifyingly arbitrary system of denying exit visas for reasons of "access to state security secrets."

For those Jews who stifle the urge to apply to emigrate, the picture is no brighter. Unlike Hungary, for example, there are no provisions to permit the teaching of Hebrew, or to open Jewish schools, or for having open and ongoing contacts with co-religionists abroad. And even Jews who do not identify religiously or culturally feel the ill wind from both state-sanctioned and grass-roots anti-Semitism that are officially promoted or condoned through the resurrected Stalinist anti-Zionist committee on the one hand, and on the other, the unofficial Pamyat movement, which carries the infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" as its bible.

In the final analysis, human-rights protests in Washington are prudent and necessary so long as fear is the operative word in the daily life of nearly 3 million Soviet Jews--fear of an uncertain future in which they are neither free to leave nor free to live openly as Jews.

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