Despite the severe measures taken by the KGB last week against the organisers of the Jewish cultural seminar in Moscow, 1976 was a better year in some respects for the Jewish activist movement in the Soviet Union than the previous one.
There were no trials (there were eight in 1975) and the activists adopted a much more positive approach. Moreover, there has been a proliferation of cultural and scientific seminars throughout the movement outside Moscow.
The emigration rate, however, has remained almost static. Last year, 13,400 Jews left the USSR and the final figure for 1976 looks like being about the same. The significant change in 1976 has been the rise in the number of “drop-outs”. This year over half of all Jewish emigrants from the USSR decided not to go on to Israel, compared with only 37 per cent last year.
The problem of the “drop-out” has become extremely acute and has led to a vigorous debate in many parts of the Jewish world. Many activists in the Soviet Union responded to the challenge by attempting to raise the national consciousness of the Jewish masses. In addition to the well-known scientific seminar started by Professor Alexander Voronel in 1972, one on Jewish philosophy and history was initiated by Dr. Vitaly Rubin earlier this year. In Vilnius, Riga, Kishinev and Kiev, such intellectual activities have become the nucleus of the movement’s work.
The journal “Tarbut” (the Hebrew word for “culture”) made its appearance and the educational bulletin, “Jews in the USSR”, continued to be published. Small amateur dramatic groups have been formed. Last swing, many young Jews crammed themselves into Mark Abramovich’s apartment in Kishinev on Purim to enact short sketches based on stories by the Israeli humorist Ephraim Kishon.
In response to the blossoming of such activities, the KGB conducted a vicious, and at times an irrational, campaign to eliminate genuine cultural initiatives. Searches in Kishinev and Odessa, interrogations in Riga and Leningrad, and the confiscation of a large number of lectures to be read at the international cultural seminar last week, were symptomatic of this approach.
A concerted attempt to suppress “Tarbut” and “Jews in the USSR” was started by the KGB during the early part of the year. In November, Vladimir Lazaris, a Moscow activist, was warned to end his work for the journal or face prosecution. Even Abramovitch’s drama group was declared to be “provocative” by the authorities and a number of its young women members were forced to resign under threat of expulsion from their institutes.
Another focal-point of Jewish activity in the past year was the congress of the Soviet Communist Party at the end of February. A few days before the congress, the authorities agreed, for the first time in many years, to meet leading figures in the Jewish exodus movement. The talks achieved very little apart from warnings to keep quiet during the congress.
The second Brussels conference on Soviet Jewry also encouraged the activists to continue their struggle but did not lead to any real improvement in the situation within the USSR.
Army service was used increasingly in 1976 as a major factor in refusing exit visas. For example, Ilya Cherniavsky, a 20-year-old student from Minsk, was soon arrested for evasion of military duty following his application for a visa. In prison, he went on hunger strike and attempts to force-feed him failed. The KGB released him and he is now in Israel.
“Secretniks” — Jews who have been refused because of alleged access to classified information — have no idea how long they have to wait. In Vilnius this year, an official explained to “secretniks” for the first time the “system” which was being applied: five years’ wait for those who have served in ordinary army units; ten years for rocket units; 15 years for anti-missile defence; 30 years for service in the KGB.
Towards the end of 1976 came the American elections and the beating-up of many Jewish activists in Moscow. Encouraged by a cable of support from Jimmy Carter, the activists went on the offensive and militant protests became the order of the day. Further demonstrations and a march resulted in the imprisonment of two Moscow activists, Iosif As and Boris Chemobilsky. World protest and Soviet desire to make a good impression on the president-elect led to their release.
But despite all the bad things, there is at least hope for the future after the low spirits of 1975, Ford and Kissinger did virtually nothing for Soviet Jews. Even before his inauguration, Jimmy Carter has built up a reservoir of goodwill in anticipation of a more aggressive policy on Soviet violations of human rights.
Soviet Jews and their supporters everywhere hope that such sentiments will be turned into impressive deeds in 1977.
Jewish Observer 31 December 1976