ROSH HASHANA, 1950: an old, frightened Moscow Jew hurriedly passes a scribbled note to a surprised Israeli diplomat stationed in the Soviet capital.
Later, in the privacy of the embassy, the diplomat glances at the note. It reads: “You will not see the truth here — only what you are shown. Everything in reality Is completely the opposite . . .”
When Dr Immanuel Jakobovits visits Moscow, Kiev and Leningrad, he will meet two types of Jews: those who are telling him the truth and those whose task is “to stand around and observe” and report back later to the authorities. He will also meet those who are struggling courageously for the right to emigrate to Israel.
What can he do during his brief trip? He can certainly make representations about the Jewish prisoners, ask for increased emigration and appeal for a reduction in harassment.
He can also make a valuable contribution by asking for national cultural facilities for the Jewish minority.
With emigration to Israel at such a reduced rate, every effort must be made to stop the trend towards assimilation. This can come about only through a programme of intensive education — something which is available to other minorities in the USSR.
For the tens of thousands who still dream of going to Israel but are too frightened to apply, this is the only way of stabilising their hopes.
The Chief Rabbi should ask for a cultural exchange programme between the British and Soviet Jewish communities. British Jews should be permitted to travel to Moscow to teach young Soviet Jews about their history, traditions, culture and language.
The KGB refuses to allow Hebrew to be taught officially within the USSR. The only places at which a Soviet citizen can learn it are the Institute of Oriental Languages at the Moscow State University, the Higher Diplomatic School and the Zagorsk Ecclesiastical Academy.
It would appear, therefore that if you are a budding Soviet diplomat or a promising Russian Orthodox priest, it is all right to learn Hebrew. But not if you are a Jew!
In recent months, the KGB has shown that it is against the propagation of Jewish knowledge. The educational journal, “Jews in the USSR”, founded by Professor Alexander Voronel, has been made the lynchpin of an inter-city “Jewish conspiracy” by the KGB. Homes in Moscow and Vladimir have been searched and many Jews called in for interrogation.
The vast majority of Jews in the Soviet Union are not religious in any formal sense. The synagogues are frequented by the old. Even those nationally conscious Jews who wish to leave are not religious.
Those who have become active in the emigration’ movement have acquired knowledge of Jewish traditions during the past few years, but without any of ‘ the spiritual basis which comes with a Jewish environment
A cultural vacuum exists in the Soviet Union today which badly needs to be filled. The Chief Rabbi is correct to go to the USSR despite the obvious dangers from the “dirty tricks department” of the KGB.
He should be forceful in making demands despite the evident KGB opposition to any concession.
This is what the Soviet Jews will expect of him. This is what activists in Britain will expect of him.
Jewish Observer 12 December 1975