During 2015, several books were published about the various diaspora campaigns for Soviet Jewry, which culminated in the emigration of a million people from the former USSR to Israel during the 1990s. The French academic Pauline Peretz has documented the American campaign while the journalist Sam Lipski and Professor Suzanne Rutland have produced a fine account of the Australian struggle.
All these campaigns, including the British one, owe their genesis to an Israeli initiative during the darkest days of Josef Stalin’s rule – a dark epoch that testified to his desire to persecute, judicially murder and eventually deport large numbers of Soviet Jews to remote, uninhabitable areas of the USSR.
In August 1952, the cream of Yiddish writers – Peretz Markish, Dovid Bergelson, Dovid Hofshteyn – were executed along with old-guard Bolsheviks such as Solomon Lozovsky.
Out of the 15 defendants, only Professor Lina Shtern was spared. The judge who had been minded to abandon the proceedings because of inadequate evidence was informed by Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s heir apparent, that “the sentence has been approved by the people… carry out the Politbureau’s ruling!”
In November 1952, the ashes of 11 of the defendants of the Slansky trial were scattered upon the icy streets of Prague. A majority were leading Jewish Communists – vehemently anti-Zionist in their views – who had been accused of being espionage agents for Israel. The party paper, Rude Pravo, proclaimed before their execution that “those 14 creatures on trial are not human beings”.
All this was to prepare the ground for the Doctors’ Plot in which the Kremlin physicians – mainly Jewish – would be accused of attempting to poison the leadership of the USSR. The blueprint was to try them and find them guilty. An angry, patriotic gathering, it was later rumoured, would push aside the guards, ”understandably” take matters into their hands – and string up the doctors on the nearest lampposts. Only Stalin’s unexpected demise saved them.
It was in this menacing atmosphere that the international campaign to save Soviet Jewry truly began. An operation named Nativ, responsible solely to Ben-Gurion, was established. An office Lishkat Hakesher – later known as ”the office with no name” – was set up in Tel Aviv on the initiative of Isser Harel, the head of the Mossad and Shaul Avigur, the founder of Shai, the intelligence wing of the Haganah.
Avigur supervised attempts to establish contact with Soviet Jews and to rekindle once more their interest in Jewishness and Judaism. Families of Russian speakers were sent to the Moscow Embassy and these often included the children of the elite such as Golda Meir’s daughter and Moshe Sharett’s son.
The early documented material on Nativ still remains classified but one of its first recruits was Nehemiah Levanon, later the head of the operation. With the fall of the USSR, Levanon was able to publish his account of Nativ’s activities in 1995.
The Soviet Union was a closed society and its leaders wanted it to remain so. Lenin had embraced assimilation as the solution to the Jewish problem. Thousands of Zionists had been arrested in 1924 and very few subsequently allowed to emigrate – only 26 were allowed to leave in 1953.
By the 1950s, Soviet Jews therefore knew little about their history and heritage. The central task of the Nativ emissaries was to distribute informative Russian language material about Jews and Israel to Soviet Jews.
They visited the diminishing number of synagogues and clandestinely passed books and pamphlets to those who wished to understand their Jewish identity. If detected, such diplomats faced intimidation, threats and deportation. Eliahu Hazan had maintained contact with the Podolosky family, who had been sentenced to long years in strict-regime labour camps. In 1957, Hazan was picked up in Odessa and stopped from contacting his embassy despite his diplomatic immunity. His KGB interrogators attempted to turn him into working for them.
He was told: “You will happily disappear and your clothes will be found on a beach. It happens sometimes that people go swimming in the sea and do not return. No law will help you. You are in our hands and you have no choice but to submit if you wish to see your wife and daughter again.”
Hazan was eventually released and permitted to return to Moscow. Levanon himself was expelled from the USSR in 1955. At the same time, Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, together with Avigur and Nahum Goldmann, the head of the World Jewish Congress, decided to launch a campaign among diaspora Jews for their Soviet brethren. In the United States, such efforts were directed at the main political parties, coloured by cold-war animosity.
In Europe, the approach was different. Intellectuals, writers and academics were asked to support the cause of human rights for Soviet Jews – emigration to Israel was hardly mentioned. Israel’s government did not wish to be seen to be involved and did not want to damage its already shaky diplomatic relations with the Kremlin.
Thus, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and the poet Pablo Neruda voiced their concern.
In this country, the writer Emanuel Litvinoff was a prime mover and he was able to convince Bertrand Russell to speak out for Soviet Jewry.
Litvinoff, an East End Jew, had lived through the struggle against home-grown fascism, the Shoah and the rise of Israel -and was deeply affected. The following lines are from a scathing poem he had written called, To T. S. Eliot:
I am not one accepted in your parish
Bleistein is my relative and
I share the protozoic slime of Shylock,
a page in Stürmer,
and, underneath the cities,
a billet somewhat lower than the rats.
In 1956 Litvinoff visited Moscow with his first wife and was appalled to discover the fate of Soviet Jews. He began a single-handed campaign for Soviet Jews which lasted more than 30 years and laid the foundations for others to become involved.
Litvinoff operated during a climate of sympathy – particularly from ex-Communists who had left the party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Many Jews had also shaken off the hypnotic embrace of Communism following the Nazi-Soviet pact and the persecutions during Stalin’s last years.
Jewish communal bodies both here and in the United States, however, were reticent about public involvement. Yet there was continual pressure from the postwar generation, whose outlook had been forged by the revelations of the Shoah.
There were also many survivors living in the UK; such memories could not be eradicated.
In May 1966, a march took place from Hyde Park Corner to the Soviet Embassy in Kensington. This was one of the first actions of the Universities’ Committee for Soviet Jewry, led by Gordon Hausmann, Mike Hunter, Allan Segal and, later, Malcolm Lewis and Jonathan Lewis. In addition to these Jewish students, there were also adherents of the New Left in the 1960s, who brought expertise from protests against the war in Vietnam and against apartheid in South Africa.
This march significantly took place without the knowledge of the Board of Deputies and other communal organisations.
Annual gatherings outside the Soviet Embassy followed on Simchat Torah – to parallel Soviet Jewish gatherings outside the main synagogue in Moscow’s Arkhipova Street.
The Six-Day war truly ignited an emigration movement in the USSR – and the Kremlin was unable to stem the demand to leave. In response, British Jews became deeply involved, in particular after the first Leningrad Trial in December 1970 in which two Soviet Jews, Edward Kuznetsov and Mark Dymshits were initially sentenced to death.
This event served as the catalyst for communal activism, the formation of the 35s Womens’ Campaign and many other groups.
While the Nativ emissaries worked with all, many British activists embarked on their own, independent path.
Differences sometimes arose. Should letters from Soviet Jews thanking figures such as Andrei Sakharov and Vladimir Bukovsky – non-Jews who had supported Soviet Jews – be published? Was Natan Sharansky, truly a prisoner of Zion? After all, he had served on the multi-national Soviet committee to monitor the Helsinki Agreement, albeit on behalf of the Jews.
A cautious Nativ did not wish to convey to the Kremlin the notion that it was anti-Soviet and desired regime change.
In Israeli eyes, human rights applied only to Soviet Jews. Jews in Moscow and in London thought more broadly and felt that figures such as Sakharov should not be airbrushed out of existence.
For many British Jews, this campaign provided the narrative for their life’s journey – those who devoted every waking moment to the cause.
Herzl’s famous comment, “If you will it, it is no dream”, was no meaningless slogan but, in reality, the motivation for a historic achievement.
Jewish Chronicle 27 November 2015