The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

paign to save Soviet Jewry truly be­gan. An op­er­a­tion named Na­tiv, re­spon­si­ble solely to Ben-Gu­rion, was es­tab­lished. An of­fice Lishkat Hakesher — later known as ‘‘the of­fice with no name’’ — was set up in Tel Aviv on the ini­tia­tive of Isser Harel, the head of the Mos­sad and Shaul Avigur, the founder of Shai, the in­tel­li­gence wing of the Ha­ganah.

Avigur su­per­vised at­tempts to es­tab­lish con­tact with Soviet Jews and to rekin­dle once more their in­ter­est in Jewish­ness and Ju­daism. Fam­i­lies of Rus­sian speak­ers were sent to the Moscow Em­bassy and th­ese of­ten in­cluded the chil­dren of the elite such as Golda Meir’s daugh­ter and Moshe Sharett’s son.

The early doc­u­mented ma­te­rial on Na­tiv still re­mains clas­si­fied but one of its first re­cruits was Ne­hemiah Le­vanon, later the head of the op­er­a­tion. With the fall of the USSR, Le­vanon was able to pub­lish his ac­count of Na­tiv’s ac­tiv­i­ties in 1995.

The Soviet Union was a closed so­ci­ety and its lead­ers wanted it to re­main so. Lenin had em­braced as­sim­i­la­tion as the so­lu­tion to the Jewish prob­lem. Thou­sands of Zion­ists had been ar­rested in 1924 and very few sub­se­quently al­lowed to em­i­grate — only 26 were al­lowed to leave in 1953.

By the 1950s, Soviet Jews there­fore knew lit­tle about their history and her­itage. The cen­tral task of the Na­tiv emis­saries was to dis­trib­ute in­for­ma­tive Rus­sian lan­guage ma­te­rial about Jews and Is­rael to Soviet Jews.

They vis­ited the di­min­ish­ing num­ber of sy­n­a­gogues and clan­des­tinely passed books and pam­phlets to those who wished to understand their Jewish iden­tity. If de­tected, such di­plo­mats faced in­tim­i­da­tion, threats and de­por­ta­tion. Eli­ahu Hazan had main­tained con­tact with the Podolosky fam­ily, who had been sen­tenced to long years in strict-regime labour camps. In 1957, Hazan was picked up in Odessa and stopped from con­tact­ing his em­bassy de­spite his diplo­matic im­mu­nity. His KGB in­ter­roga­tors at­tempted to turn him into work­ing for them.

He was told: “You will hap­pily dis­ap­pear and your clothes will be found on a beach. It hap­pens some­times that peo­ple go swim­ming in the sea and do not re­turn. No law will help you. You are in our hands and you have no choice but to sub­mit if you wish to see your wife and daugh­ter again.”

Hazan was even­tu­ally re­leased and per­mit­ted to re­turn to Moscow. Le­vanon him­self was expelled from the USSR in 1955. At the same time, Prime Min­is­ter Moshe Sharett, to­gether with Avigur and Nahum Gold­mann, the head of the World Jewish Congress, de­cided to launch a cam­paign among di­as­pora Jews for their Soviet brethren. In the United States, such ef­forts were di­rected at the main po­lit­i­cal par- Tri­umph: Jews from the for­mer Soviet Union em­brace as they ar­rive on Is­raeli soil at Ben Gu­rion Air­port in 1968 ties, coloured by cold-war an­i­mos­ity.

In Europe, the ap­proach was dif­fer­ent. In­tel­lec­tu­als, writ­ers and aca­demics were asked to sup­port the cause of hu­man rights for Soviet Jews — em­i­gra­tion to Is­rael was hardly men­tioned. Is­rael’s gov­ern­ment did not wish to be seen to be in­volved and did not want to dam­age its al­ready shaky diplo­matic re­la­tions with the Krem­lin.

Thus, the philoso­pher Jean-Paul Sartre and the poet Pablo Neruda voiced their con­cern.

In this coun­try, the writer Emanuel Litvi­noff was a prime mover and he was able to con­vince Ber­trand Rus­sell to speak out for Soviet Jewry.

Litvi­noff, an East End Jew, had lived through the strug­gle against home-grown fas­cism, the Shoah and the rise of Is­rael —and was deeply af­fected. The fol­low­ing lines are from a scathing poem he had writ­ten called, To T. S. Eliot: I am not one ac­cepted in your parish Bleis­tein is my rel­a­tive and I share the pro­to­zoic slime of Shy­lock, a page in Stürmer, and, un­derneath the cities, a bil­let some­what lower than the rats.

In 1956 Litvi­noff vis­ited Moscow with his first wife and was ap­palled to dis­cover the fate of Soviet Jews. He be­gan a sin­gle-handed cam­paign for Soviet Jews which lasted more than 30 years and laid the foun­da­tions for oth­ers to be­come in­volved.

Litvi­noff op­er­ated dur­ing a cli­mate of sym­pa­thy — par­tic­u­larly from ex-Com­mu­nists who had left the party af­ter the Soviet in­va­sion of Hun­gary in 1956. Many Jews had also shaken off the hyp­notic em­brace of Com­mu­nism fol­low­ing the Nazi-Soviet pact and the per­se­cu­tions dur­ing Stalin’s last years.

Jewish communal bod­ies both here and in the United States, how­ever, were ret­i­cent about pub­lic in­volve­ment. Yet there was con­tin­ual pres­sure from the post­war gen­er­a­tion, whose out­look had been forged by the rev­e­la­tions of the Shoah.

There were also many sur­vivors liv­ing in the UK; such mem­o­ries could not be erad­i­cated.

In May 1966, a march took place from Hyde Park Cor­ner to the Soviet Em­bassy in Kens­ing­ton. This was one of the first ac­tions of the Uni­ver­si­ties’ Com­mit­tee for Soviet Jewry, led by Gor­don Haus­mann, Mike Hunter, Al­lan Se­gal and, later, Mal­colm Lewis and Jonathan Lewis. In ad­di­tion to th­ese Jewish stu­dents, there were also ad­her­ents of the New Left in the 1960s, who brought ex­per­tise from protests against the war in Viet­nam war and against apartheid in South Africa.

This march sig­nif­i­cantly took place with­out the knowl­edge of the Board of Deputies and other communal or­gan­i­sa­tions.

An­nual gath­er­ings out­side the Soviet Em­bassy fol­lowed an­nu­ally on Sim­chat To­rah — to par­al­lel Soviet Jewish gath­er­ings out­side the main syn­a­gogue in Moscow’s Arkhipova Street.

The Six-Day war truly ig­nited an em­i­gra­tion move­ment in the USSR — and the Krem­lin was un­able to stem the de­mand to leave. In re­sponse, Bri­tish Jews be­came deeply in­volved, in par­tic­u­lar af­ter the first Len­ingrad Trial in De­cem­ber 1970 in which two Soviet Jews, Ed­ward Kuznetsov and Mark Dymshits were ini­tially sen­tenced to death.

This event served as the cat­a­lyst for communal ac­tivism, the for­ma­tion of the 35s Womens’ Cam­paign and many other groups.

While the Na­tiv emis­saries worked with all, many Bri­tish activists em­barked on their own, in­de­pen­dent path. Dif­fer­ences some­times arose. Should let­ters from Soviet Jews thank­ing fig­ures such as An­drei Sakharov and Vladimir Bukovsky — non-Jews who had sup­ported Soviet Jews — be pub­lished? Was Natan Sha­ran­sky, truly a prisoner of Zion? Af­ter all, he had served on the multi-na­tional Soviet com­mit­tee to mon­i­tor the Helsinki Agree­ment, al­beit on be­half of the Jews.

A cau­tious Na­tiv did not wish to con­vey to the Krem­lin the no­tion that it was anti-Soviet and de­sired regime change.

In Is­raeli eyes, hu­man rights ap­plied only to Soviet Jews. Jews in Moscow and in Lon­don thought more broadly and felt that fig­ures such as Sakharov should not be air­brushed out of ex­is­tence.

For many Bri­tish Jews, this cam­paign pro­vided the nar­ra­tive for their life’s jour­ney — those who de­voted ev­ery wak­ing mo­ment to the cause.

Herzl’s fa­mous com­ment, “If you will it, it is no dream”, was no mean­ing­less slo­gan but, in re­al­ity, the mo­ti­va­tion for a his­toric achieve­ment.

Many de­voted ev­ery wak­ing hour to the cause

Colin Shindler is emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor, SOAS, Univer­sity of Lon­don. He was ac­tive in the Soviet Jewry cam­paign be­tween 1966 and 1975.


Nehim iah Le­van


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