New approach to Soviet Jewry work needed

The call for the establishment of a national Conference on Soviet Jewry would be a welcome development in    co-ordinating future activities and would satisfy many of the complaints now being made.

Until a few months ago, there were four definable groups within the campaign. The “old guard” centred very much on the Board’s Soviet Jewry actions committee, chaired by Michael Fidler, whose members included many people with long experience of communal affairs.

The second grouping consisted of people who held slightly more liberal views and hoped to change the image of the community by working with them. Sonic had already served in communal office at a secondary level and wished to participate in the full leadership when the succeeding generation took over the reins of power from the “old guard”.

A third group, centred mainly on the 35s women’s campaign, considered itself entirely independent of communal organisation. It conducted a dynamic, demonstrative campaign without caring a great deal about what the leadership said or thought. Though the 35s sat on the actions committee, its Links with it were as loose as possible.

Vested interests

The fourth group—if “group” it could be called – consisted of no more than a few like-minded individuals, mainly people in their 20s, who had been involved in work for Soviet Jewry since tits very conception of the campaign over ten years ago.

The inevitable involvement of the communal leadership, they believed, had led to a rigidity of thinking and acting and a general encrustation of the campaign—at least in intellectual terms.

At the beginning of 1975, many of those young people decided to leave communal service. These were, in the main, personal and individual decisions yet the disregard with which nearly all of them held the communal leadership no doubt hastened their departure.

The different vested interests of the three main groups led to difficulty in co-ordination. More often than not, differences would arise between the “old guard” and their liberal allies and the independent fiery leaders of the 35s.

The former would adopt a long-winded, drawn-out, sophisticated, diplomatic approach to the simplest problem whereas the latter favoured a direct, no-holds-barred, up-and-at-’em attack on the most complex concept. The only true factor which united these factions was their undoubted concern for Soviet Jewry.

From the outset it was assumed that the young people and the 35s would follow in the footsteps of the trusted members of the communal “talking shop”. As some representatives on the committee pointed out privately, Soviet Jewry was not a problem that could be started up and switched off at will when other seemingly more important issues arose.

Instead of trying to improve the situation, familiar faces were drafted in from other communal committees on the principle, it seemed, of “the bigger, the better”.

As tension grew, some of the mole dedicated workers became bored with attending the meetings of the Soviet Jewry actions committee and began working individually, in their own way, for the cause.

The first ideas to remedy the deteriorating situation were put forward by the young people at the end of 1973. The basic proposal was the ‘creation of a coordinating centre which would involve all elements of the campaign.

The aim was to break with tradition and create something totally new in the Jewish community.

Lack of new blood

The new body would not be burdened with directors of this and vice-presidents of that. There was an obvious desire to forestall a total bureaucratisation of the campaign in the future. They pointed out that spontaneity would be eliminated if there was a rigid organisation.

The campaign, they suggested, depended on two things: the situation of the activists in the USSR and the actions of the Soviet Government. Work in this country, therefore, depended on correct information being received; information was a natural co-ordinating medium, without which no work could be done. All sections within the centre would be autonomous and policies would be decided by democratic debate.

These proposals, however, proved too radical for some and the young people were labelled as “disloyal”. But the idea of the centre did sow some seeds. In the summer and autumn of last year, meetings were held behind closed doors. From these first discussions, the idea of a national bodyfor Soviet Jewry, based on the American model, emerged. It would incorporate all the constituent communal bodies and would work from within the Deputies in the existing structural network. But even this moderate proposal was rejected.

The reputation of the Soviet Jewry actions committee deteriorated and even fewer people attended its meetings. By last winter, most of the young people had left the movement or were about to leave.

The campaign which had started in a flurry of youthful idealistic rebellion had become a conformist bandwagon. New blood did not trickle along the lifelines of the Soviet Jewry movement.

The exodus of young people not only from Soviet Jewry work but from communal service in general caused a twinge of conscience. The “Marks memorandum”, named after the Board’s secretary, Abraham Marks, contained all the moderate proposals for a Deputies-controlled National Conference on Soviet Jewry. Marks himself had crossed over to the liberals.

If the next meeting of the Board of Deputies accepts the idea of a National Conference, it will be a first step back towards the enthusiastic early days of the campaign_

There are still no young people involved. “The bitter truth is that there is no attraction for young intellectuals to participate in the community today”, Gordon Hausmann, a student leader of the campaign in the 1960s, has commented.

Such an attraction can only come about by a change of values of the present Jewish leadership. Until then, young people and free thinkers will keep far away and the National Conference will have to rely the usual small number of dedicated workers. This is the key not only future of the Soviet Jewry’ campaign but of the entire Jewish community.

Jewish Observer 11 July 1975

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