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Soviet 'refuseniks': treated as common criminals

I left Moscow a few days before the shooting down of the Korean plane. News of the tragedy came as a great shock, but as no great revelation about the nature of the Soviet state. For during two weeks in the Soviet Union I was a daily witness of the constant abuse of human life and dignity.

I met about 40 Jews while in Leningrad, Kiev, Odessa, and Moscow. Most of them were ''refuseniks'' - they had requested and been denied permission to emigrate to Israel.

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With no exceptions, these people were treated as common criminals: They were social outcasts, had lost their jobs, and were subject to frequent harassment and even arrest.

Yet the parallels with the airplane tragedy emerge not from the isolated cases of abuse, however prevalent, but from the goals that lie behind present Soviet policy toward the Jews: the assimilation and eventual destruction of Jewish culture.

Since the 1967 Middle East war there has been a growing, vibrant Jewish nationalist movement in the Soviet Union. The response of the Soviet leadership to the movement has varied with internal political winds and the amount of pressure brought to bear from the West.

Annual emigration figures have varied greatly: over 50,000 Jews in the late 1970s, compared with around 2,000 projected for the current year.

It is clear that the level of emigration is linked to East-West relations. The Soviets use Jews as a bargaining chip; emigration has been highest when relations and trade with the US have been at their peak. Thus the present low level of emigration is in part a result of the frozen dialogue between Andropov and Reagan.

Yet what is much more worrisome than this trend is a new campaign to crush the Jewish movement which the Soviets are attempting to wage outside the gaze of Western observers and correspondents. This three-pronged attack is aimed not only at preventing emigration but at destroying Jewish culture in the USSR at its roots. Its goal is to break the spirit and will that have sustained the movement for the past 15 years.

This first tactic of the new campaign is to destroy the cohesion of the Jewish community by establishing anti-Zionist committees in almost every city with a substantial Jewish population. The function of these groups, whose members are often Jewish, is to defame the leaders of the Jewish movement and publish anti-Semitic literature and art. Prominent Jews are under great pressure to participate; in Kiev, Leonid Korsunsky, a former leader of the refusenik community, holds an influential position in the anti-Zionist committee. This has dealt a blow to the momentum of the movement in Kiev and has bred suspicion throughout the community.

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Second, the government has stepped up its battle against the study of Hebrew. Common language and culture are the only links the refuseniks have with the outside Jewsish world. While teaching Hebrew to children has always been prohibited as anti-Soviet, adult language courses have been tolerated. Not so anymore. Classes are being broken up, books confiscated, and teachers arrested with alarming frequency. If this policy continues, the learning of Hebrew - the emotional and intellectual lifeblood of the refuseniks - could disappear altogether.

Finally, and what for many is the most threatening problem, is the increasing stringency of the legal requirements for emigration. Over the past decade, the granting of visas has been largely at the whim of officials.

Though frustrating, this left open the possibility of fluctuations in outflow. The mere chance of emigration, though remote, was enough to spur many to apply. And it is the refuseniks, for the most part, who sustain the nationalist movement, for they have little to lose by engaging in activities frowned upon by the state.

To ensure a minute outflow and reduce the number of activists, the authorities have restricted eligibility for visa applications to those who have immediate family members that are Israeli citizens. Initially, the presence of any relative in Israel was sufficient.

The government has also begun to call up for military service refuseniks who have already served in the Army and have waited up to seven years from discharge for security clearance. One day in a reserve unit is enough to warrant classified status and preclude any hope of emigration. Rather than jeopardize their long-awaited status, Lev Elbert in Kiev and Yakov Mesh in Odessa have refused to report for duty. They are now in jail for a minimum of 12 months.

None of these tactics alone will be able to arrest the momentum or the spirit of the thousands of Jews who are fighting to retain their cultural heritage and win the freedom to live in Israel. Yet the movement does depend upon hope and the will to struggle.

The aim of the government's strategy is to stifle this will, to make the hope of emigration so futile, that none can psychologically afford to hold out.

If this were to happen, the Soviets would have succeeded in destroying a culture as they did the lives of 269 people on KAL Flight 7. The West has made clear its commitment to prevent such a tragedy from recurring. Fortunately, we can and must do more to prevent cultural genocide than we can to redeem those lost in the Sea of Japan.

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