Anthony Wilson-Smith April 16 1990



Anthony Wilson-Smith April 16 1990




In the middle of a crowd of silent, despairing Jews on a downtown Moscow street last week, 69-year-old Yakov Umansky wept unashamedly. Usually, he said, tears do not come easily to him. A decorated veteran of the Second World

War, Umansky is a small, erect, reserved man who says that he has “learned to take the bad with the good.” But recently, he said, the occasional anti-Semitic insults that he had grown accustomed to have become more frequent and vehement. On one occasion this month, a teenage boy on the subway spat on his bemedalled coat and said, "Jew, go back to Israel.” Some bystanders laughed. After that, Umansky and his wife, who have never before been outside of the country, made a decision. Last week, he joined the crowd at the Netherlands Embassy, which processes emigration requests to Israel. Said Umansky, as tears streamed down his lined face: “I risked my life

against fascists—and now I see them everywhere.” The Umanskys are among the modem victims of a rising anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, the sentiment that has stained history for generations.

Slights: Around the world, the manifestations of anti-Semitism have ranged from common slights to blatant discrimination to the ultimate horror of the Holocaust. In the Soviet Union, where Jews have been the victims of hatred at various times before and after the 1917 revolution, current fears may so far exceed the weight of facts. But the evidence is diverse and disturbing—virulent hate groups, threatening phone calls, accusatory magazine articles. Paradoxically, anti-Semitism has reemerged at a time when, under Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet Jews have been allowed greater freedom to practise their religion and preserve their culture. But, although most Soviet Jews praise Gorbachev’s reform programs, they note that glasnost has had a troubling side effect. “It is good that people are no longer afraid to speak their minds,” said Vladimir Fedorovsky, president of Moscow’s Jewish Community Board and the Choralnaye Synagogue. “But the hidden hate against us is now coming into the open.”

Pattern: The same pattern is evident in many of the former Soviet satellites of East and Central Europe, where anti-Semitism is also on the increase, often as a byproduct of resurgent nationalism (page 26). In the Soviet Union, a country increasingly riven by domestic chaos and interethnic strife, Jews have recently been blamed for everything from destroying communism to creating communism in the first

place. Confronted with such criticism, many Soviet Jews, taking advantage of Gorbachev’s eased emigration policies, have chosen to leave.

Although the United States has been the preferred destination, in October, 1989,

President George Bush’s administration imposed a quota of 50,000 Soviet refugees a year. The result has been what Bush last week called a “modern exodus” to Israel: this year, the number of Soviet immigrants to the Promised Land is likely to exceed 100,000, up from about 13,000 last year (page 25).

Some concerned outsiders say that even those numbers

are not enough. Last week in Paris, a group of intellectuals known as “Exodus 90,” and including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, called on the United States, Britain and France to take in more Soviet Jews. Citing widespread rumors of a pogrom—an organized massacre—of Jews, allegedly planned for Moscow and Leningrad on May 5, French writer Antoine Spire said, “Jews are living in a permanent state of fear and anxiety that pogroms will happen again.” Les Scheininger, president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, issued a similar warning. “We perceive the Jews in the Soviet Union to be in danger,” he said. “We unfortunately think that history can repeat itself.” Scheininger said that his organization plans

to ask Ottawa officials to help expedite the immigration of Soviet Jews to Canada. According to External Affairs officials, 479 Soviets immigrated last year, compared with 248 in 1988, and the department is enlarging its five-member emigration staff at the Moscow embassy to process applications more swiftly.

Many analysts play down the possibility of widespread violence against Soviet Jews. But Moscow officials concede a sharp increase in support in the past year for Pamyat (Memory), a Russian-nationalist group that often makes strong anti-Semitic state-

ments—and which is believed to be behind the pogrom rumors. In Moscow and Leningrad, many Jews have recently received anonymous phone calls threatening a pogrom. In other incidents, a group of about 50 people stormed a meeting of a liberal writers’ group in January and beat many participants. The weekly newsmagazine Ogonyok said that the attackers called the writers “zhids,” a derogatory term for Jews, and threatened to return with guns.

Jewish sites and businesses have also been targeted. Over the past two years, Jewish cemeteries in Moscow and Leningrad have been repeatedly vandalized. Joseph Berezovsky, the owner of Moscow’s only Je wishfood restaurant, said that in recent weeks two of his vans and three cars have been torched in anti-Semitic attacks. “Whenever our country faces difficulties,” declared Berezovsky, “they blame Jews.”

Poll: Further signs of deepening anti-Jewish feeling are contained in a recent poll financed by the American Jewish Congress and conducted by the Soviet Academy of Sciences. The poll of residents of Moscow, considered one of the most liberal of Soviet cities, found that 48 per cent of respondents said that anti-Semitism is growing. At the same time, 74 per cent of respondents said that the government should do more to fight anti-Jewish feeling. But only 18 per cent of respondents said that they liked Jews, and 23 per cent said they agreed with the statement that “Jews have too much influence over Russian culture.”

In fact, the estimated 1.5 million Jews make up less than one per cent of the total Soviet population of 290 million. But throughout history, they have often been singled out for special, unpleasant attention. In czarist Russia, Jews were restricted to a western section of the country known as the “Pale of Settlement” and were often subjected to beatings, robberies and murders. In 1816, nine years before ascending to the throne, Czar Nicholas I described Jews as “full-fledged leeches.” Decree: Since the creation of the Soviet Union more than 70 years ago, its successive leaders have displayed sharply conflicting attitudes towards Jews. In 1918, Soviet founder


Vladimir Lenin signed a decree that outlawed anti-Semitism. Many of the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution, including Lenin’s close aide Leon Trotsky, were Jewish. Soviet authorities in the 1920s established an area in

eastern Siberia that they called the Jewish Autonomous Region. Now, it is still formally reserved for Jews.

But only a small minority of its residents are even nominally Jewish, and Soviet officials privately acknowledge that the region’s existence has been used largely for propaganda.

Even in the early days of the Soviet Union, some Jews clearly feared anti-Semitic attitudes. A recent study by Soviet historian Victor Danilov, using a previously unpublished document, said that

Trotsky rejected Lenin’s offer to succeed him because he worried that his Jewish roots would hurt the communist cause. The document quotes Trotsky as saying, “It would be far better if there was not a single Jew in the first Soviet revolutionary government.”

Under Lenin’s successor, Josef Stalin, Soviet policy gradually moved towards sometimesblatant anti-Semitism. Shortly before Stalin’s death in 1953, the Soviet press reported the existence of what it called the “Doctors’ Plot,” allegedly a plan by some Moscow physicians to

kill high-ranking government officials. Most of the doctors implicated were Jewish, and the charges served as a pretext for launching an anti-Jewish purge. Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, later said that the plot was nonex-

istent and that Stalin had engineered the rumor. More recently, now-discredited leader Leonid Brezhnev placed severe restrictions on Jewish emigration and closed many synagogues. But, ironically, nationalist Russians often accused Brezhnev of secretly collaborating with Zionists.

Alarm: Gorbachev’s attitude towards Soviet Jews appears to have changed in recent years. Shortly after he became leader in 1985, he told a French interviewer, “I would be glad to hear of Jews

enjoying anywhere such political and other rights as they have in our country.” That remark alarmed Jews, who feared that existing restrictions on their religious activities would be maintained. But, said Faina Pekler, an official with the countrywide Union of Synagogues, “Gorbachev’s policy towards Jews has been exemplary.”

In fact, both Jews and Soviet authorities cite tangible signs of that recent welcoming attitude. Last year, a Jewish cultural centre opened in Moscow, the first anywhere in the country in more than 50 years. The Soviet Academy of Sciences and Jewish philanthropists from Western countries combined to open the country’s first school of Jewish studies since the Stalin era. In the 112 areas of the nation with significant Jewish communities, many are being allowed to open, or reopen, synagogues for the first time since the 1920s.

At Moscow’s Choralnaye Synagogue, one of two in the city, organizers have started an elementary school that about 90 Jewish children now attend. Along with regular subjects, they study Hebrew and Jewish history. The inside of the synagogue, a 112-year-old building on Arkhipova Street, reflects the down-atthe-heels grandeur of a place that has been lavished with much care but little money. From 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. daily, hundreds of Jews visit in search of fresh matzo bread from the bakery, a meal in the kosher canteen, and spiritual or material assistance. Said Fedorovsky: “If you want to know whether a Jewish community survives, look in here. We live a whole different world under Gorbachev.”

Charges: At the same time, government authorities now publicly condemn anti-Semitic acts. When anti-Jewish pamphlets were distributed in the Ukrainian city of Odessa in January, the local Communist party chief denounced the action. And Soviet authorities filed criminal charges in February against members of the nationalist group Pamyat, accusing them of “inciting national and racial hatred and strife.” The case has not yet gone to court.

Little is known about the size or influence of Pamyat, whose members wear black paramilitary-style T-shirts or army greatcoats. But Jewish leaders say that the rumors about the shadowy group are what create its greatest power to terrify. The most widespread of those is that all candidates wishing to join must supply the names and addresses of five Jews in their area, presumably for future harassment. Last month, Ogonyok, one of the most liberal of Soviet publications, published a letter from an unnamed Jewish woman who was planning to emigrate because of threats from Pamyat. “Quite frankly, I am afraid of you,” wrote the woman. “Congratulations, you have won.” Many Soviet Jews say that tougher government measures are needed to turn back the rising tide of anti-Semitism. Some also maintain that sympathetic public statements by Soviet officials mask a private indifference. “The new policies make it easier for Jews to leave,” declared Rita Tiokhin, a 30-year-old office worker from the Ukrainian region of Donetsk. “But they do nothing to ease the lives of those who wish to stay.” Said Sveda Gailova, a 37-year-old hairdresser:

“Every day, at least one co-worker says to me, ‘Go away, Jew, you are not one of us.’ ”

New frustrations are fuelling old hatreds. The nation has been shaken by a deepening economic crisis, including worsening shortages of food and consumer items, as well as by the agitation of independence movements in Lithuania and other republics. The Jews have proved to be convenient scapegoats. In some cases, the search for someone to blame has dissolved friendships. Georgy Bazpalov, a 45year-old Moscow Jew who has spent the past three years working in Pakistan, returned recently to find that his best friend from childhood had severed ties with him. Bazpalov said that the onetime friend cited consumer shortages, telling him, “I have heard all about how you Jews hide everything away for yourselves.”

Hatred: As well, the new freedom of the media has permitted a wider exchange of views, and Jews say that some have been decidedly unpleasant.

Last November, the conservative, Moscow-based magazine Nash Sovremennik ran an excerpt from a book, Russophobia, in which the author, Igor Shafarevich, said that Jews have “no common roots with Russia and since childhood [have] absorbed a hatred for everything Russian.”

Some analysts express doubts that such sentiments will lead to immediate pogroms. Irwin Cotier, a law professor at McGill University in Montreal and the international legal adviser to the Confederation of Jewish Communities and Organizations in the Soviet Union, said that he does not take the threat of a

pogrom on May 5 very seriously. He added that similar incidents promised in the past have not materialized. “Nonetheless,” Cotier said, “this sense of an incipient pogrom is spreading like wildfire. There are now whole communities seeking to emigrate.”

However, the enormous increase in Jewish emigration is not due solely to fears of potential violence. Unlike most other Soviet citizens, Jews simply have the opportunity to leave and a

guaranteed home in Israel. The only other such privileged people are ethnic-German Soviets, who can move to Germany if they can prove their roots.

Concern: In any case, many Jews who leave the Soviet Union do so reluctantly. Often, they do not speak foreign languages and have little money saved, because the Soviet ruble is not convertible to Western currencies. And because their religion was suppressed for so long, some Soviet Jews are only nominally religious. Those bound for life in Israel often express concern about how they will fit into a country where the entire society is defined by religion. Asked Galina Turyanskaya, a 25-year-old Moscow woman: “In Israel, will I have to go to worship every day?”

For both the Jews who leave and those who stay behind, there is another consideration. Konstantin Berman, a 69-year-old retired engineer from Moscow, recently decided to leave for Israel. Berman is, like Umansky, a decorated veteran of the Second World War who said that he had never planned to emigrate. “I have always thought myself a Russian first and a Jew second,” Berman said. But now, he added, “my neighbors make it clear they see things the other way

around.” When he leaves next month for Israel, he declared, “my heart will be broken—I have loved a land that does not love me.” For Soviet Jews, on an exodus bom of sorrow and anger, that emotional legacy is hard to forgive—and impossible to forget.