Following Gorbachev’s accession to power in 1985, I was able to visit Jewish refuseniks in Moscow, after many years of being refused a visa due to my work for Jews in the USSR.
I met many remarkable people on that visit, including Yuli Edelstein, shortly after his release from a strict regime labour camp.
His appeal to British Jews to produce a campaign against the delegitimisation of Israel, similar to the Soviet Jewry campaign, may appeal to the emotions, but the scenarios are profoundly different.
The Soviet Jewry campaign was highly successful because many who sympathised retained the memory of the Shoah, understood Stalin’s crimes and remembered the rise of Israel.
The agenda of the succeeding generation was decolonisation – Vietnam and South Africa, Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara. It was a generation who had neither fought fascism nor witnessed the establishment of Israel in 1948. The Palestinian struggle fitted in much more easily into their world view.
Even in the 60s, there was a minority on the Left who were reticent to endorse the campaign wholeheartedly. They supported human rights for Jews within the USSR and free emigration, but departure specifically to Israel made them unhappy. Jewish dissidents were OK, but Jewish refuseniks were much more suspect.
Even though the Soviet Jewry campaign was apolitical, there was a wariness of aligning oneself with “the Zionists” and a fear of being labelled “anti-Soviet”. Forty years later, such sentiments are widespread. Even in those days, there was a lack of communal understanding in how to confront the Left’s growing antagonism towards Israel.
Successive Israeli government policies have, of course, exacerbated the situation. Many British Jews would speak out against the demonisation of Israel, but few would endorse Yuli Edelstein’s claim that the colonisation of the West Bank is a good thing. Today’s reality is certainly far more complex.