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Soviet Jewry in the 1980s
The Politics of Anti-Semitism and Emigration and the Dynamics of Resettlement
By Robert O. Freedman
Duke University PressCopyright © 1989 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Passing Eclipse: The Exodus Movement in the 1980s
* * *
Theodore H. Friedgut
The 1970s had been years of triumph for the Jewish exodus movement in the USSR. During this decade nearly a quarter million Jews had been permitted to emigrate. The renaissance of Jewish national and cultural identity had been firmly established as a phenomenon with which to be reckoned inside the USSR and had rallied widespread sympathy and support the world over.
For the first time since the 1920s the Soviet regime had granted recognition to emigration of such dimensions and duration that it could not be concealed from the public at large. The fact that this emigration centered around such a historically sensitive minority as the Jews and that the emigrants' announced destination was Israel, a country with which the Soviet Union had demonstratively severed its relations, could only magnify the impact. In addition, a "demonstration effect" soon became evident as the Jewish emigration was followed by similar movements of another nonterritorial minority, the Germans, and a large-scale emigration of Armenians, who not only had their own Union Republic, but who had, a generation earlier, campaigned for the return of the Armenian diaspora to the Soviet Armenian motherland. In the numerous analyses of the Jewish exodus movement published to date, there has not been adequate examination of its importance as a factor in Soviet domestic politics and society.
This decade of achievement was not, however, without its shadows. The large-scale emigration far surpassed all early projections as to its potential, but it soon became evident that a large group of activists was being denied the right to leave. A community of long-term Refuseniks became a festering issue, their continuing imprisonments, exiles, and harassment overshadowing tens of thousands of joyful family reunions. The refusenik issue became an embarrassment to the Soviet authorities by focusing attention on the ugliest features of the Soviet political system. By the mid-1980s the freeing of Prisoners of Zion and of long-term refuseniks became the benchmark by which the entire movement's progress or retrogression was measured. For some time these dramatic personal fates very nearly overshadowed the basic issue of the freedom of Jews to leave the USSR. When the glasnost emigration began in the spring of 1987, this overshadowing was a source of anxiety to many refuseniks who feared that the release of a few prominent figures might be a Machiavellian trick of the Soviet authorities to diminish public pressure for a return to an unimpeded exodus.
A second problem that darkened the last half of the 1970s was what became known as the issue of dropouts—those Jews leaving the Soviet Union with visas for Israel but en route changing their destination for other countries. The political and moral complexities of this problem and suggestions of how to deal with it are treated elsewhere in this volume. In this overview of the movement's development we will only note its psychological and operational effects. The overwhelming majority of activists who have organized the cultural and political activity of the exodus movement do so in the name of aliyah, immigration to Israel, as Zionists devoted to their people's return to its homeland. These Zionist activists take upon themselves the burden of public leadership of the movement, thus exposing themselves to regime reprisal and repressions. It was, therefore, with frustration, and even anger, that these leaders saw a growing proportion of the precious quota of exit visas (always granted in numbers smaller than those wishing to leave) going to people who had no intention of attempting a new life in Israel. Even the total commitment of these exodus activists to the principle of freedom of choice as a part of their revulsion from the compulsions of Soviet society did not ease their discomfort at the moral problem created by the dropouts' exploitation of Zionist efforts. In the already unbearably tense atmosphere of Soviet Jewish life this simply added new strains.
A similar splitting of forces was evident both within various Jewish communities and in the worldwide movement for assisting Soviet Jews. Israeli institutions and personalities accused the U.S. government as well as certain American-Jewish public organizations of unfairly "tempting" Soviet Jews to come to America. These accusations became the focus of internal recriminations that threatened to diminish the unity and effectiveness of the Soviet Jewry movement in a number of countries. In addition, what was seen as an Israeli attempt to coerce the Soviet Jews to come to Israel against their will was rejected as inhumane and antidemocratic, thus tarnishing Israel's image. The government of Israel, which had originally responded to the Soviet Jews' struggle for exodus by urging, inspiring, and coordinating much of the international effort now found that it had no control and a diminishing measure of influence over this effort. A major reassessment of approach was called for but was painfully slow in emerging.
The Turn of the Decade
In the final two years of the 1970s hopes were generated that a permanently high plateau of Jewish emigration might have been reached. In the early months of 1979 it appeared that the exodus would easily surpass the magic number of 60,000 postulated in earlier years as a proof of virtual free emigration. The continuity of the movement seemed assured, for as the wave of emigration grew, the number of those requesting a vyzov (an invitation from relatives abroad) grew in parallel, with new thousands of Jews taking the decision to leave. Thus a constant backlog of potential emigrants came into being.
Yet by the summer of 1979 careful observers of the exodus movement were already sounding the alarm. Even as the wave of emigration was growing, the granting of new exit permits slowed, and in the second half of 1979 this began to be reflected in a declining monthly rate of emigration. For those who saw only the overall figures, the record-breaking exodus of 51,547 appeared to be a crowning peak to a decade of successful struggle. The following years of decline—21,471 in 1980, 9,400 in 1981, 2,692 in 1982, and figures that hovered around the thousand per year mark from then to the end of 1986—quickly erased the optimistic sense of achievement dominant in the 1970s. Ignoring the vociferous protests of thousands trapped in the limbo status of refuse-niks, Soviet spokesmen blandly declared the emigration chapter in Soviet Jewish history closed, stating that no more Soviet Jews were applying to leave, that over 90 percent of applications had been approved, and that only a small number of persons, refused for legitimate reasons of Soviet state security, were denied emigration.
What caused the change? Why did the Soviet government suddenly close the gates in midyear, after appearing to have accepted the principle of free exit? Numerous explanations have been suggested. Some of these have little apparent connection with Soviet interests or actions and therefore little credibility. Such, for instance, is the claim that the growing percentage of emigrants heading for North America, rather than to Israel, caused the change. This claim, which has obvious relevance to the Israeli establishment's efforts to use administrative methods in putting an end to the drop-out problem, fails to take account of two important pieces of evidence. The first is that Soviet authorities had repeatedly pushed dissidents into exile with visas for Israel when it was clear (particularly in the case of non-Jews) that they would not go to Israel. In such cases it is hard to argue convincingly that the emigrants' ultimate destination was of any importance to the Soviet regime. Of even more importance is the fact that at the same time that Jewish emigration was cut off, emigrations of Germans, who had no drop-out problem, and of Armenians, who were leaving their homeland and creating a new diaspora, were also stopped. In 1987, when the Jewish emigration began to increase again, these two emigrations also resumed. There can be little doubt, then, that destination was not the determining factor.
Attention should therefore be focused on possible reasons which can be related to problematic policy areas in Soviet domestic and international affairs. It would appear that the closure of emigration was related to three main factors: détente, economic crisis, and social unrest. Any one of these alone might have engaged the attention of one or more of the Soviet leaders, and yet might have been insufficient to rally the political support necessary to bring what was then an aging and conservative leadership to change a well-established policy. However, when all three policy areas became problematic simultaneously, a coalition of attention supporting suspension of emigration could easily be formed.
In the field of détente it became clear in the summer of 1979 that the Carter regime's confidence in the USSR as a partner in the relaxation of tensions was rapidly cooling and that the SALT II treaty would not be brought before the United States Senate for ratification. In addition, as the 1979 wave of emigration rose, signaling a year-end possible total of 60,000 or more, there was no responsive signal from the U.S. government or from any of the political or social groups supporting Soviet Jewry, suggesting a quid pro quo in the form of expanded credits, freeing of technological aid and trade, or activation of the review clause in the Jackson-Vanik amendment. In December came the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, followed in 1980 by the growing political crisis around the growth of the Solidarity movement in Poland. Détente, at least for the near future, was dead. Jewish emigration, as a bargaining element in the détente process, had lost its value.
At the same time the Soviet Union was sinking into economic stagnation. The predictable problems of a mature economy operating in a suffocating bureaucratic environment in conditions of hypertension and shortage were compounded by a seven-year run of adverse weather that nearly destroyed the lagging agricultural sector. The seriousness of the difficulties was clearly apparent when Brezhnev found it necessary to state repeatedly in high Communist party forums that the inability of the regime to maintain a consistent food supply for its industrial centers had become the highest-priority political and economic problem facing the regime. The short-term plan by which the Soviet leaders hoped to alleviate their economic problems involved numerous measures of resource conservation and belt-tightening, but in keeping with time-honored Soviet methods the core of the program centered around a campaign for greater effort, more work, and tighter work discipline. Local officials might well have complained to the center that it was difficult to try and convince rank-and-file citizens of the need for such efforts while tens of thousands of Jews, Germans, and Armenians, many of them highly trained and relatively sober and hardworking, were streaming out of the country. Continuing emigration was thus very probably viewed as an impediment to overcoming the economic crisis.
The stagnation and crisis of Brezhnev's latter years brought with it a wave of growing social tensions. The spread of alcoholism, the rise in infant mortality, and other alarming social symptoms were clearly seen by analysts of Soviet society. In addition, there were growing tensions between Great Russians and other Soviet nationalities. On the background of these tensions the emigrating minorities, who were seen as having been prominent in the making of the revolution, were accused of deserting a sinking ship and of leaving the Russians to clean up the mess left in the wake of the revolution's failures. Only now, under Gorbachev's recent policy of freer discussion and criticism are we able to see the full extent to which corruption, stagnation, and demoralization were felt in the grass roots of Soviet society.
One of the symptoms of the demoralization in Soviet society was a general emigration fever that affected whole sections of the Soviet scientific, cultural, and technical intelligentsia. These were the very groups central to any Soviet effort to overcome economic difficulties and speed the country's transition to modernity. They were also the people who, due to their professional placement, were most aware of the true dimensions of the Soviet crisis and of the regime's inability to cope. In addition, they were generally in close contact with many of the emigrants, particularly the Jews, whose socioeconomic achievements had clustered them in this stratum. As the Soviet crisis became sharper at the end of the 1970s, many non-Jewish members of the intelligentsia began to shift their attention from their nominal work to a concentrated effort to get themselves and their families out of the USSR. Failing that, many opted for "internal emigration," that state of apathy to society and surroundings familiar in the annals of the Russian intelligentsia. While other elements of the plan to rally society, such as the anti-alcoholism campaign or the efforts to improve public health and workers' productivity, could have real impact only over a long period of time, the regime was both able and willing to cure the emigration fever and concentrate the intelligentsia on its production tasks by slamming the gates with such a resounding bang that an unmistakable message would be transmitted.
The decision to end emigration is best seen, then, as a complex of three factors, containing both domestic and international elements. As changing circumstances and the changing perceptions of a new Soviet leadership influence regime priorities, the prospects for the continuation and growth of the renewed emigration stream will also change. This, too, is likely to be determined by a complex of domestic and international factors.
A New Policy: Neither Anti-Semitism nor Zionism
The enunciation of the Soviet regime's new policy toward its Jewish minority came only in 1981 at the 26th Communist Party Congress. Speaking in the context of the need for the smaller national minorities to take on more of the burden of economic development hitherto borne disproportionately by the Great Russians, Brezhnev began to talk of national relations in the USSR. He stated that every nation's dignity should be protected and that no deviations from this norm would be tolerated. "We will tolerate neither chauvinism nor nationalism—for example, neither anti-Semitism nor Zionism." As though to emphasize the promise to the Jews implicit in these words, the elections to the leading Communist party bodies at the close of the party congress raised Jewish representation to a level unknown since World War II. Six persons publicly known to be Jews were allotted places in the Central Committee and Central Auditing Commission.
Brezhnev's formulation of neither anti-Semitism nor Zionism expresses the essence of the policy formulated by his regime for the Jews of the USSR in the 1980s. The Jews were to forget about emigration, live "normal Soviet lives," and submit to isolation from other Jewish communities of the world. In essence, they were to revert to the situation in which they had lived in preemigration years. Here and there they would be permitted some crumbs of Sovietized Jewish culture. An occasional concert or play on a Jewish theme might be presented. From time to time a Russian-language book with material of Jewish interest might be published. Some of these items would be displayed in Soviet society with sufficient prominence to signal to the public the legitimacy of this controlled Soviet Jewish culture. Yet little more than this was in prospect to satisfy the new sense of national identity that had grown up among Soviet Jews in the 1970s. If the Jews would accept this, renouncing Zionism (and the Communist party version of Zionism as enunciated by Brezhnev included abandonment of any interest in and contact with foreign Jews unless initiated by the Soviet authorities in support of state interests), then Brezhnev seemed to be promising a cessation of discrimination, both public and professional. Not only would propaganda of an anti-Semitic nature be kept out of the press, but educational and occupational discrimination that had grown steadily over the years was to be decreased, if not wholly eliminated.
Excerpted from Soviet Jewry in the 1980s by Robert O. Freedman. Copyright © 1989 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsTables and Figures ix
Part One. The Impact of Internal Politics in The Soviet Union on Soviet Jewry
1. Passing Eclipse: The Exodus Movement in the 1980s / Theodore H. Friedgut 3
2. The Soviet Public Anti-Zionist Committee: An Analysis / William Korey 26
3. Soviet Anti-Semitism Unchained: The Rise of the "Historical and Patriotic Association, Pamyat" / Howard Spier 51
Part Two. Linkages between Soviet Foreign Policy and the Exodus of Soviet Jewry
4. Soviet Jewry as a Factor in Soviet-Israeli Relations / Robert O. Freedman 61
5. The West European Approach to the Soviet Jewry Problem / Howard Spier 97
6. Jewish, German, and Armenian Emigration from the USSR: Parallels and Differences / Sidney Heitman 115
Part Three. Alternative Strategies for Promoting the Emigration and Resettlement of Soviet Jews
7. Soviet-American Trade and Soviet Jewish Emigration: Should a Policy Change Be Made by the American Jewish Community / Marshall I. Goldman 141
Part Four. Patterns of Soviet Jewish Resettlement in the United States and Israel
8. Soviet Immigration Resettlement in Israel and the United States / Zvi Gitelman 163
9. Soviet Jewish Artists in the USSR and Israel: The Dynamics of Artistic Resettlement / Stephen Feinstein 186
Appendix 1. Soviet Jewish Emigration from the USSR 215
Appendix 2. The Jackson Amendment 216
Appendix 3. The 1987 Soviet Decree on Emigration 218
Appendix 4. Anti-Semitic Propagandists and Activists Identified with Pamyat 221
Appendix 5. Exchange of Letters 222