The limits of tolerance

KEITH CHARLES November 25 1985

The limits of tolerance

KEITH CHARLES November 25 1985

The limits of tolerance

On Sept. 15, the night before the Jewish new year, one generation of Jews, mainly men over 60, gathered inside Moscow’s central synagogue to perform the traditional evening service. Outside, on Arkapova Street, watched by the militia and the plainclothes KGB, roughly 2,000 Jews of the new generation were engaged in a defiant demonstration of hope. One man, perhaps 35, strummed a guitar and sang, off-key. A young girl, not more than 18, played a recorder and led others in a sing-song that lasted for more than an hour. Here and there groups of people danced the traditional Israeli folk dance, the hora. Then, at precisely 10:30, a line of militiamen moved down the street toward the crowd. Out of the darkness came a voice, over a loudspeaker: “Jewish Comrades, go home. Go to the subway.” Reluctantly, the crowd dispersed, filtering toward the subway, followed by the line of militiamen at a discreet distance of about 20 paces—again reminded of the precise limits of Moscow’s tolerance for the practice of Judaism.

Visas: This week in Geneva, after long discussions on arms control and regional wars, President Ronald Reagan will look across the table at his summit partner, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and pointedly address the condition of Soviet Jews. The American approach will be low-key, recalling commitments that the Soviet Union made when it signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights contained in 1975’s Helsinki Accord. The central obligation: to grant citizens the right of free emigration. According to senior administration officials Reagan is prepared to offer important trade concessions in return for significant Soviet improvements on the human rights agenda—specifically, a significant increase in exit visas for Jews and separated families and the release of political prisoners.

Moscow ’s compliance with freedoms enshrined in the Helsinki documents has been uneven. Since large-scale emigration began in 1971, more than 250,000 Jews have left the Soviet Union. At its peak in 1979, the highwater mark of American-Soviet détente, some 51,300 Jews were given exit visas. But since then the numbers have fallen off dramatically. Last year only

896 Soviet Jews received permission to emigrate. The 10-month total for 1985 is only slightly higher. Declared Elia Shostakofsky, a Leningrad computer scientist who applied for emigration 12 years ago: “After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December, 1979, there was no longer any reason to court favor in the West. Now we are back to normal. It was the levels of the late 1970s that were abnormal.”

Shostakofsky, 41, is only one of about 50,000 “refuseniks”—Soviet Jews who have formally applied for exit visas and received official refusals. Hundreds of thousands more, perhaps half the Soviet Union’s estimated 2.5 million Jews, are awaiting only a favorable signal from the Kremlin to submit their own applications. “Some would stay,” conceded Sacha Yampolsky, who lost his job as a Leningrad engineer after applying for emigration in 1976. “But on the first hint that the gates were opening again, the visa offices would be filled.”

In fact, ever since the Israeli and Soviet ambassadors to France met secretly in Paris last July, there have

been periodic reports that Moscow was ready to adopt a more liberal approach to Jewish emigration. Reports from Moscow have said that Gorbachev has authorized the release of about 15,000 Jews annually. The French president, François Mitterrand, has offered his country’s assistance in flying the émigrés to Israel. And Israel’s ministry of absorption has drafted detailed plans for receiving huge numbers of Soviet Jews. Said Zvi Eyal, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency, an immigration co-ordinator: “There’s no meat yet, but there are good smells coming from the Kremlin kitchen.” Skeptical: But there is little hard evidence of a real shift in Soviet policy. Many observers maintain that Moscow has itself orchestrated the symphony of stories to defuse summit criticism of its record on human rights. Among the most skeptical are the Soviet refuseniks themselves. Said one Moscow engineer, who prefers to remain anonymous: “Here, there are no signs of improvement. Refuseniks who were specifically told that they would receive visas or were told to renew their applications have actually been refused.” The same doubts are voiced about prospects for an early resumption of ties between Moscow and Jerusalem. The Soviet Union severed formal diplomatic relations in 1967 after the six-day Arab-Israeli war. But recently a series of discreet contacts between Israeli and Warsaw Pact envoys again fuelled speculation that the Soviet Union was on the brink of restoring normal diplomatic channels. Again, nothing concrete has emerged, beyond an agreement with Poland to exchange low-level envoys.

For Soviet Jews the summit meeting is the climax of months of gathering tension—and excitement. Many of them predict that it will determine whether Israel becomes the beneficia-

ry of tens of thousands of new immigrants or whether the Soviet Union continues to stifle Jewish nationalism with discrimination, harassment and state-sponsored anti-Semitism. “Don’t confuse us with dissidents,” said Yampolsky, who earns a living by working about eight 24-hour shifts a month as a maintenance man at a Leningrad ice rink. “We aren’t out to change the Soviet system of government. We have committed only one crime: we have expressed a desire to leave.”

Pariahs: The urge to leave the Soviet Union puts refuseniks in a situation of grave uncertainty. Relegated to the remote fringes of society, they live perpetually suspended, stranded in a

twilight zone in which they can neither go forward to freedom in the West nor backward, if they wanted, to Mother Russia. They have been stripped of jobs, degrees, professional standing. Their younger children are routinely abused by schoolmates; their older ones denied entrance to university. Many suffer from a host of physical, psychological and psychosomatic illnesses, including ulcers, depression and stuttering. Many have lived for 10 years or more “in refusal”—the best, most productive years of their lives —denied access to literature, research and laboratories.

A small number of refuseniks manage to maintain jobs in their own pro-

fession. One is Leningrad computer specialist Vladimir Lifshits, who staged a 20-day hunger strike and was finally hired as an entry-level programmer. Most either work at levels well below their qualifications or find that they have become social and professional pariahs. “Most of my colleagues won’t have anything to do with me,” said Moscow physicist Arman Khatchaturian. “And the few who are willing to talk to me I avoid—lest I cause them trouble. I go to work, collect my salary, but I do nothing. Nothing.”

“You see, for us,” added Lev Shapiro, a computer engineer currently employed as a fuse repairman at a Leningrad factory, “the Soviet Union is a vast prison. But the point is, prison sentences generally come to an end. If you live in Russia, there is no end to your sentence.”

Crackdown: The sentence would be more tolerable if the government permitted the free and open practice of Judaism. “If we can’t leave,” said one Moscow refusenik, “at least leave us alone to pray.” Instead, Soviet authorities have cracked down hard on the teaching of Hebrew and other aspects of Jewish culture. “They aren’t like the Nazis,” said the wife of one underground Hebrew teacher in Leningrad. “They can’t kill Jews but they can kill Judaism.” In recent months three Hebrew teachers—all refuseniks—have been arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to prison terms. Because teaching Hebrew is not prohibited by Soviet law, the defendants are typically charged with other offenses—hooliganism or slandering the Soviet state. In the case of Roald Zelichonik, a 50year Leningrad engineer sentenced last August to three years in a Soviet prison camp, the evidence was slander based on letters intercepted by the government in which Zelichonik expressed his desire to emigrate. Zelichonik, who suffers from high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis and inflamed kidneys, is not expected to survive his term.

Still, the refuseniks remain hopeful. “Hopeful, but realistic,” said Shostakofsky, whose parents and a younger brother were granted exit visas several years ago. “What is important,” declared another refusenik, “is that the West not remain silent. I do not know whether rallies and demonstrations really do us any positive good. But I do know this. The absence of such rallies would do us positive harm. It would be taken as a signal by Moscow that the West no longer cares about this issue and as a licence to solve its own Jewish question as it sees fit.”