THE MOSCOW CONFERENCE: A Gamble That Paid Off

What Does It Mean to be Jewish, Winter 1995

Moscow was our destination. The Fifth Biennial Conference of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews was to be held there on the weekend of Sept­ember 23-25.

Eighty of us departed North America for this Russian rendezvous. Some of us were apprehensive. We had been bombarded with media propaganda on the dangers of or­ganized crime, mugging, and murder. Twenty people already had succumbed to this warn­ing and had withdrawn from the group. They were convinced that we were flying into a Mafia trap and would be destroyed. Not even the onion domes of St. Basil’s could convince them to relent.

But, for most of us, excitement overcame fear. It was not only that we would experience the wonders of the Hermitage and the Bolshoi, that we would walk the banks of the Neva and promenade under the towers of the Kremlin. It was also that Humanistic Judaism had ar­rived in Russia. A new Eurasian Association for Humanistic Judaism had been formed some two years before, and we were coming to ex­press our support for this fledgling organiza­tion and for the future of a Jewish community in all the republics of the former Soviet Union.

The holding of a conference in Moscow was a gamble. Russia was in economic turmoil. The amenities in public institutions did not meet Western standards. The new leadership of our communities had not yet been tested.

But the experience we had turned out to be far more wonderful than anything we could have anticipated. It was not only that Moscow and St. Petersburg are filled with cultural mar­vels, or that the new capitalist energies of these two cities provided a dynamic setting of change and hope, or that all our fears of Mafia rape proved to be groundless. It was also that the experience of meeting Russian Jews who shared our aspirations and convictions and who were eager to bond with their brothers and sisters from Europe, Israel, and North America was deeply moving.

The conference was held in the original building of the University of Moscow, right across from Red Square and the imposing tow­ers of the Kremlin. The building had been quite magnificent in tsarist times. But it was now a shabby relic of its former glory, a victim of Communist mismanagement and neglect.

Holding the meeting there was important. It was the most prestigious educational insti­tution in Russia. It also had been one of the chief bastions of anti-Semitism in tsarist and Bolshevik days. Ironically, it now housed the new Jewish University. Our board meetings were held in the new Jewish library.

Two hundred fifty delegates attended the meeting. Besides the 80 of us from North America, there were 30 from France and En­gland, 10 from Israel, 2 from Latin America, and more than 125 from seven republics of the former Soviet Union. The Eurasian delegates, in many cases, traveled several days and nights by train to reach Moscow. They came, not only from Russia, but also from Belarus, Ukraine, Khazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Georgia. The Eurasian Association is a coali­tion of thirty-five small communities scattered over eight million square miles, some of them closer to China and India than Moscow.

The theme of the conference was “What Does It Mean To Be Jewish?” The question was directly related to the needs of Russian Jews. It also flowed directly from the decision made at our Brussels conference in 1988, when we had dealt with the question “Who Is A Jew?” Having declared that Jewish identity is not only an inheritance but also a choice, we were now confronted by the more important issue of Jewish living. If one is a Jew, how does one lead a Jewish life? If one is a Humanistic Jew, how does one lead a Humanistic Jewish life? Determining Jewish identity is only the pre­lude to arranging for Jewish commitment. For Russian Jews who are searching for ways to express their Jewish identity for the first time, this question is crucial, especially since they are being assaulted by aggressive Lubavitcher missionaries who claim that their way is the only true way to be Jewish.

Addressing this question was a panel of distinguished speakers. There was Yehuda Bauer, world-famous Holocaust scholar and co­chair of the International Federation. There was Yaakov Malkin, founder of the community center movement in Israel and dean of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Israel. There was Albert Memmi, an intellectual darling of the French literary world, a professor at the Sorbonne, and the leader of our French communities. There was Egon Friedler, well-known journalist and writer from Latin America and leader of our Uruguayan organization. There were many Russian speakers, including Semyon Avgustevich, the organizing genius of the Eura­sian Association.

There were two stellar moments at the conference. The first was the Saturday evening banquet. The Eurasian delegates sat at twenty-six tables, each of which bore the name of a city where one of our Humanistic Jewish com­munities existed. Delegates from outside Rus­sia could choose the community they wanted to connect with by simply sitting down at the appropriate table. The experiment worked wonderfully. The bonding was intense. Out of that communication came sister communities. We of the Birmingham Temple in Detroit have adopted Vitebsk in Belarus as our sister con­gregation. We will offer support, establish an ongoing dialogue, and learn from each other. By the end of the evening there was fervent conversation and spontaneous singing. The presence of distinguished guests from the Rus­sian Jewish leadership and the Russian par­liament seemed less important.

The second moment was at the end of the conference on Sunday morning. The declara­tion on how to lead a Jewish life had just been read. Delegates were standing up to articulate their response to the weekend. One of them, a representative from Kazan, whom we called Olga from the Volga but whose real name was Olga Apollonova, stood up and declared with great fervor, “We thank you for coming to Rus­sia. We have been waiting for the message of Humanistic Judaism. You do not have to break down the door. The door is open.”

What did we learn from our experience?

We learned that Russia, with all its eco­nomic and political problems, is bumbling down the capitalist road. No one has a better alternative. Even the opposition does not want to go back to the old communism. They want the freedom of capitalism with a wel­fare system.

We learned that the new free environment allows fascists and anti-Semites to sell their wares and to peddle their hate. Right outside the former Lenin Museum in Moscow, the anti- Semitic bible, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was being openly sold.

We learned that the Jewish community in Russia is struggling with the issue of whether there is any future for Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. The Israelis predict catastro­phe and want them to come to Israel. But many want to remain. Despite anti-Semitism, Russia is their home and Russian culture is their culture.

We learned that there is a real opening for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Russia. The ag­gressive message of Orthodoxy has limited appeal to a community molded by secularism and intermarriage. Our success will be deter­mined by our ability to train educators and leaders for new communities as well as by our power to produce a Humanistic Jewish litera­ture in Russian. The task is formidable. But we cannot betray this historic opportunity.

Atheism in the Soviet Union

Building Communities  – Winter 1987

Atheism in the Soviet Union. It seemed an irresistible thing to investigate en route to Oslo for a world meeting of humanists. Twenty-five of us from the North American Committee for Humanism, leaders from six major humanist organizations, arrived in Leningrad on Friday, July 25, 1986. Victor Garadzha, director of the Moscow-based In­stitute for Scientific Atheism, a research center for the study of religion and anti- religion, had invited us to visit and learn after a letter of inquiry sent by me. Our stay in the Soviet Union was to be for eight days.

As naturalistic, nontheistic humanists, many of us perfectly willing to identify ourselves as atheists, we were curious about what the establishment of atheism as the of­ficial “religion” of the Soviet Union (replac­ing Russian Orthodoxy) meant. How perva­sive was atheist belief? How were school­children indoctrinated? What were the ceremonies of birth, puberty, marriage, and death that had been substituted for the old Christian rites? How were the sick and the dying counseled and consoled?

We knew that between the two world wars, atheism was militant. The govern­ment closed down churches, synagogues, and mosques, forbade all religious teaching, banned religious books, and interfered massively with religious activity. Many churches were turned into community cen­ters, schools, and even stables. The clergy were portrayed as agents of reaction. Dur­ing World War II, Stalin softened his anti- religious policies because he wished to mobilize all parts of the population to resistance against the Germans and desired to revive the old Russian nationalism for political purposes. After the war, the anti-religious militancy never returned.

We knew that no religious propaganda was allowed. Many of the churches, now restored to their former glory, are either purely ceremonial centers or museums. We knew that being religious publicly in the Soviet Union was a disadvantage in the pur­suit of work, power, and prestige — in the same way that being an atheist is in North America.

Our meetings were held in the House of Atheism in Moscow, an old pre-Revolutionary mansion that had been transformed into a local center for the dissemination of atheist propaganda. Located in the eastern Taganka district, this center was one of 53 such centers in major cities throughout the Soviet Union. Its exterior retained some of the elegance of czarist times. Its interior was more pedestrian, with offices, study rooms, lecture halls, and a row of photo­graphs of atheist heroes.

Present at the meetings was an array of atheist officials from many organizations connected with education, ceremonial life, publications, and research. Feodor Timo­feev, vice-director of the Institute for Scien­tific Atheism, chaired the gathering, which included Igor Romanov, leader of the Mos­cow Central House of Scientific Atheism, Yevgenia Osipova, professor of atheism and philosophy at the Moscow State Institute of Culture, and Boris Maryanov, co-editor of the main atheist journal, Science and Religion.

Our discussions, which lasted for two mornings and an afternoon, ranged over a wide variety of topics. We carefully avoided certain subjects, since we did not want to spend our precious time on political cliches. We had no intention of arguing about the virtues or vices of Marxism and the Soviet political system, since that conversation would have ended up with useless confron­tation and no information concerning the subjects we were interested in. We mainly directed our questions to atheist education, life cycle ceremonies, and personal counsel­ing — aspects of Soviet daily life that were less visible to Western eyes than the blustery Marxist propaganda we were accustomed to reading and hearing.

There are no special atheist communities in Russia comparable to humanist or reli­gious communities in the Western world. Atheism is simply an integral part of the of­ficial “religion” of Leninism and is express­ed through all the agencies of the state and, especially, through the multitude of com­munal organizations — social, military, in­tellectual, and athletic — that claim the time and allegiance of Soviet citizens. The “god” of the Soviet Union is Lenin. His face and figure are everywhere. Since he was an atheist, atheism is part of Soviet doctrine.

Atheist indoctrination is handled by six different agencies and institutions: 1. The Ministries of Education are in charge of the school system and the molding of young Russian minds. All teachers in the Soviet Union are trained to present the atheist point of view to their students, whether in study or play. 2. The Ministries of Culture are responsible for many intellectual and ar­tistic activities, including state-managed life cycle ceremonies. 3. Faculties of atheism and philosophy, in all major schools of higher learning, provide compulsory courses in atheism for all university students, regardless of their specialties.

  • The many houses of atheism in the major cities, such as the one we visited in Moscow, are propaganda centers where the history of religion is presented from an atheistic point of view and where lecturers, voluntary or paid, are trained as atheist “missionaries” to the general public. 5. The Institute for Scientific Atheism, head­quartered in Moscow, has a faculty of some 40 scholars who research the history of religion and atheistic thought and publish scholarly papers. 6. Science and Religion, a popular journal with a circulation of 400,000, seeks to expose the evils of religion to the Soviet people and to demonstrate the incompatibility of religion with a modern scientific outlook.

None of these six agencies really coor­dinates its atheist activities with the other five. Informal ties exist, but they do not con­stitute an efficient central control.

Soviet authorities have developed alter­native ceremonies, however pedestrian, to those of the old religion. The first Bolshe­viks were so hostile to organized religion that they avoided any kind of celebration that could be remotely connected with the traditional ceremonies of the church. Mar­riages were conducted in registry offices, and babies received no ceremonial wel­come. But, after a while, the authorities came to realize that even atheists needed a ceremonial life with some kind of aesthetic dimension. The result was the gradual development of a series of state-sponsored institutions and celebrations to serve as an integral part of the developing cult of Leninism.

Now citizens of the Soviet Union have options. If they are secularists who hate cer­emonies, they can avoid them, except for a perfunctory procedure at the marriage registry office. But if they want something more “poetic” at special life cycle moments, the system has arranged for this need. There are baby-naming palaces and wedding pal­aces and ceremonial houses at cemeteries.

In the main wedding palace in Moscow, the marble interior is both spartan and grand. Sophia Bulayeva, its manager and director, invited us to witness a marriage ceremony.

On a typical busy day, couples and their families wait in the large reception halls to be summoned to their respective ceremo­nies. Grooms dress conventionally, but brides wear some shortened facsimile of a wedding gown and headdress. The celebra­tion is held in an impressive room with a dramatic rug, desk, and governmental seal. A female wedding professional, assisted by a female representative of the Moscow city government, conducts the ceremony. The shy couple stand by themselves in the mid­dle of the room with family and spectators along the walls. A three-piece orchestra, engaged for four rubles, introduces the celebration with a very short section of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. The of­ficiant, dressed in a severely tailored blue ceremonial suit, instructs the couple on their obligations as husband and wife and as good Soviet citizens. The bride and groom walk forward to sign the marriage docu­ments. Witnesses follow. Rings are ex­changed. More exhortation is offered. Wed­ding chimes are heard. Family and friends rush forward to embrace the couple. But the bride and groom never kiss each other. After the ceremony, the couple, like most Soviet newlyweds, may go off to one of the public statues of Soviet heroes, especially Lenin, to offer their tribute of flowers.

Weddings, babynamings, and funerals are increasingly being conducted by a new breed of professionals, trained by the Ministries of Culture, who function as a secular “clergy.” They are full-time workers with special ceremonial costumes and ritual formats. Almost all of them are women. When Bulayeva was asked why, she replied with the surprisingly traditional response that women are more appropriate than men because they are more nurturing.

The most developed and successful athe­ist ceremonies are the growing-up rites that are provided for children in the schools. Throughout their school careers, Russian children participate in group celebrations of high emotion, which mark important steps in their development as Soviet citizens. There are ceremonies when school begins, when school ends, when important achieve­ments are made. And the school ceremonies are supplemented by dramatic celebrations in the youth groups, especially the Pioneers, which almost all Soviet children join. Rus­sian youths are more innocent and less jaded than Western children and do not pos­sess the cynicism of affluence that affected so many American young people in the six­ties and seventies, when graduation cere­monies were often avoided.

The counseling of the sick and the dying is much more traditional than parallel pro­cedures in the West. In America, in recent years, serious efforts have been made to protect the dignity of the patient by enabling him to confront the truth of his condition, even when it is fatal; in Russia, fantasies of hope are preferred. Pessimism of any kind is regarded as subversive. The vision of a world that is getting better and better is part of Soviet triumphalism. The real human condition, with all its disappointments, disillusionments, and frustrations, is never allowed to surface — especially on an offi­cial level.

Philosophically, Soviet atheism is nega­tive in content. It devotes most of its time to denouncing religion and old superstitions. It spends very little time articulating the positive humanistic side of atheism. What­ever positive elements exist are tied up with the cliches of a traditional Marxism that very few young people really believe in pas­sionately anymore.

We visited the famous Museum of Athe­ism in Leningrad, ironically and deliciously the former great cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan. When I was there sixteen years ago, its magnificent classical and baroque in­terior was filled with an appallingly tasteless anti-religious exhibit. Today, the assaultive elements have been subdued, and a more objective history of religion is pre­sented. Still, the emphasis is on what atheists do not believe — very little on what they do believe. Even the magazine Science and Religion and the scholarly work of the Institute are negative in tone, always find­ing fault and rarely stating a positive, per­sonal alternative to the old religion.

At the same time, nostalgia for the art and artifacts of the old religion is growing. It is now fashionable among the young to collect icons and religious pictures, to “ooh” and “aah” over old religious architec­ture, and to choose a church wedding. While most people in the Soviet Union have become overwhelmingly secular after 70 years of atheist power, many of them find Soviet life boring and search for romantic roots in the past. This nostalgia becomes a safe rebellion against a regime of tired pro­gressive slogans.

One afternoon, one of the voluntary guides at the House of Atheism took us on an “atheist” tour of Moscow. All the sites we visited were religious buildings, old churches that had been restored. When our guide talked about these structures, tied so intimately with the history of Moscow and Russia, his presentation was positive and sentimental.

Although our stay was too short for com­prehensive analysis, it was a marvelous learning experience — although quite depressing at times.

From a North American humanist per­spective, Soviet atheism is disappointing:

  •  It is intimately tied to the “religion” of Leninism, which possesses all the dogma­tism, worship, and naivete of the Orthodox Russian religion that preceded it.
  •  It has succeeded in producing a nation of secularists but not a nation of humanists. Most Soviet citizens do not find aesthetic and personal satisfaction in the doctrines of the regime.
  •  It is managed by nice but innocuous bur­eaucrats, whether academic or administra­tive, who are incapable of building any pas­sionate belief out of all the state power they possess and who, despite this power, have never recruited the finest writers and artists to offer their skills to the development of an effective atheism.
  •  Its brightest side is the ceremonial life it has created for the young, with the help of unsung legions of teachers and youth leaders.

The best thing to come out of our trip was the contact we made with some of the lead­ers of Soviet atheism. Despite our political, social, and economic differences, we share a commitment to a nontheistic philosophy of life. We hope to stay in touch. Perhaps, if a more liberal Russian regime ultimately emerges, with less of an investment in the cult of Leninism, a more meaningful dia­logue can take place.

The Rabbi Writes – Attempted Russian Coup

The Jewish Humanist, September_October 1991, Vol. XXVIII, Number 2

The Communist Party hardliners in the Soviet Union are a pathetic lot.  They cannot even do what they used to do best.  They cannot even conduct a successful coup. 

For three days freedom lovers in Russian (sic) and throughout the world were scared.  The sudden overthrow of Gorbachev-although predicted by some-shattered hope and expectations of a peaceful world.  The image of ruthless Communism re-emerged and was reinforced by memories of past repressions. 

But it was all over so quickly.  The Gang of Three-KGB leader Kryuchkov, Defense Minister Yazov and Interior Minister Pugo-proved to be nothing more than paper tigers.  For diehard Communists who remembered Stalin, it was embarrassing. 

Who were the coup leaders? 

There were all Gorbachev appointees whom he had chosen to appease the right wing of the Party and to provide balance to the “extremists” on the left he wanted to resist.  They were the remnants of the old establishment that had governed Russia for 70 years and were fearful of losing their power.  They struck one day before the signing of the new Union Treaty which would have decentralized Soviet government and deprived their jobs of any real significance. 

Why did they fail? 

They were sloppy.  The coup did not have the usual Communist efficiency and brutality.  They failed to seize all strategic buildings immediately.  They failed to arrest potential resistance leaders, including Yeltsin.  They failed to create an environment of military intimidation throughout the country.  Their coup had elements of comic opera, which future historians will exploit to their amusement.  They were an amazingly non-charismatic collection of leaders.  They all looked like faceless Communist bureaucrats from the Brezhnev era-black-suited, unsmiling, dour and filled with outdated cliches.  They were not the stuff out of which successful tyrannies are made.  Not one of the eight members of the State Emergency Committee could transcend the image of a Party apparachk (sic). 

They had not fully secured the loyalty of the commanders of the army.  Many junior officers were alienated from the archaic manner of the general staff.  Many soldiers had been converted to the ideals of democratic reform.  Many of them were reluctant to shoot their own people.  Only terror would have mobilized them.  And that terror did not exist. 

They were rejected by the outside world.  Bush and other Wetern leaders quite appropriately refused to recognize the legitimacy of the junta.  The external rejection gave heart to the internal resistance. 

They underestimated the extent of the democratic and liberal sentiment in the Soviet Union, both in the countryside and the major urban centers.  After four years of liberty, most of the Russian people were no longer prepared to return to the old obedience.  Gorbachev had wrought a revolution that could not be reversed.  What had once appeared to the masses as credible and frightening now seemed ludicrous and disgusting.  The coup occurred too late.  Three years earlier it would have been successful. 

They underestimated the courage of the masses and the boldness of Yeltsin.  They expected the old apathy, or at least ambivalence.  But they found mobs in the street willing to defend their new found freedom.  And the people of Russia had a defiant, charismatic leader who became the focal point of popular resistance. 

The coup leaders were not without some support.  Widespread anger over shortages, rising prices, speculation, increasing crime and ethnic conflict was a fertile ground for exploitation.  But, in the end, popular hostility was directed to them and to communism as the causes of the natural disaster. 

So what does the failure of the coup mean? 

It means the death of communism in the Soviet Union.  The coup was the last stand of the Party against the loss of power.  So discredited is Marxism that even the coup leaders were reluctant to use communist slogans to mobilize the masses.  They rather appealed to law and order.  The hardliners are in disgrace and so is their cause.  The attempt to overthrow Gorbachev was a kind of collective suicide. 

It means the embarrassment of Gorbachev.  Despite the fact that he was a victim of the coup and bravely resisted their demands for his cooperation, the reality is that the leaders of the junta were his appointees.  He had trusted them with power.  He had trusted them with power.  He had insisted on Yaneyev, the chairman of the junta, as his vice president, despite the protests of his own supporters.  He was undone by his own assistants, not a very pretty tribute to his sagacity or to his commitment to democracy.  Gorbachev may be bypassed by the rapid movement of events.  The revolution that he created may now need less compromised  leadership. 

It means a victory for Boris Yeltsin.  His courageous leadership during the coup attempt has made him a national hero.  Part buffoon and part genius, he is now the most popular man in the Soiet Union and a very eligible candidate to lead the Russians-and whoever joins them-to a market economy. 

It means victory for the nationalities of the Soviet Union who want more autonomy and even independence.  Already Estonia has joined Latvia and Lithuania in declarings its complete separation from the Russian Empire.  Whether the Soviet Union will hold together or disintegrate into its constituent republics is now an open question.  It means increasing power for America and the political agenda of Bush and Baker.  With the removal of the hardliners and the increasing dependence of the Russians on the help of the West, Soviet cooperation with the United States will be much easier.  That cooperation will enhance the effectiveness of the United Nations and increase pressure on Israel to make peace with the Arabs. 

The Gang of Three has unwittingly performed a wonderful service for the free world.  They have arranged to disappear.  A new world order may owe their stupidity a debt of thanks. 

The Rabbi Writes: Rosh Hashanah

The Jewish Humanist, September 1977, Vol. 15, Number 1

Rosh Hashanah 

A time for annual Jewish reflection. 

A time to look back on the year that was and ask the question: 

So what is the condition of the Jews? 

The condition of the Jews is not always easy to assess. But pleases the orthodox may not please the atheist. But the conservative calls progress that liberal may label reaction! 

But there are some current problems which all would agree were (sic) troublesome. 

The problem of Israel. The strong posture of the Begin government may be initially appealing. But it remains pure bravado unless Begin can find the Jews to occupy the territories he wishes to annex. In an ironic sense Begin and the old Arafat agree that Israel (or Palestine, if you wish) should remain undivided. For the Arabs the Begin state will in the long run be an Arab State. A bigger Jewish state, without Jewish immigration is the first step to an Arab Palestine. 

The problem of Russia. Russian anti-Semitism continues. In a recent issue of the magazine Moskva, Anatoly Scharansky asserted that Jewish bankers are not yet in power everywhere… it remains the most important task of the Zionist brain center to capture the key positions in the economic, administrative and idelogical machine of the countries of the diaspora… It is natural that such monstrous teachings could not fail to arouse vigilance, dislike and even hostility on the part of people with even a minimum of sense. The so-called Jewish world conspiracy becomes a convenient diversion on the part of the authorities to explain the inadequacies of the Soviet system and to justify anti-semitism. If three million Jews were not trapped within the boundaries of the Soviet Union, the statement would be ludicrous. 

The problem of Argentina. One of the largest Jewish communities in the world (numbering 500,000) is suffering the evils of an incompetent military dictatorship. Terrorism, inflation and unofficial antisemitism are on undermining the security of our Argentine Jewry. A competent dictatorship would at least (sic), have arranged for economic stability! Since the situation is not bad enough for emigration, ambivalence reigns. 

The problem of South Africa. It is only a matter of time before black (sic) nationalism sweeps away the Rhodesian regime and creates civil turmoil in South Africa. Given the power of the Africaner (sic) army it is unlikely that the whites will be driven into the sea in the near future. But South African whites, including 120,000 Jews will be living in the midst of riots and terrorist provocation. No matter how liberal Jews may choose to be, they are condemned to being white. The present emigration of Jewish professionals is the trickle before the flood.  

The problem of Quebec. Montreal had, until recently, the largest and most vital Jewish community in Canada. It’s English-speaking establishment including the Jews is unfrightened (sic) of the future. French Canadian nationalism, like most nationalism (sic) is economically irrational. But it is politically relentless. Toronto is also beginning to experience the exodus of Jews from Quebec. As recent history has demonstrated neither nationalism nor socialism have served Jewish interests well.  

But enough problems.  

What positive things exist? 

Two assets come to mind . 

1.The Arabs are incapable of uniting against Israel. Their hostility for each other in some cases seems to be greater than the hostility to Israel. During the past year Arabs fought Arabs in both Lebanon and Libya. A new public ally has emerged for Israel. The Maronite Christian Arabs of Lebanon prefer Jews to their fellow Arabs. 

2. The largest Jewish community In the world (some six million) have managed, for some reason or other, to end up in the most powerful nation in the world. America is today the industrial, intellectual and artistic center of our planet. Either the Soviet Union or Western Europe have the cultural vitality of the United States. Jewish power is a function of the Jewish presence in America. Leadership in the arts and sciences is disproportionately Jewish. While many Jews are embarrassed by our conspicuous presence (and think that we should never mention it in a public magazine), others like me are justifiably pleased and believe that our enemies should be reminded repeatedly of what they already know.  

This is reason enough for Jews to say Happy New Year.  

The Challenge of Soviety Jewry

Humanistic Judaism, Fall, November 1991

The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union is one of the most important events of the 20th century, equal in importance to the Bolshevik Revolution, which brought communism to power. For more than 70 years, all major political developments in both the West and the East evolved around the Bolshevik presence. Fascism, war, and the political tensions between Left and Right all were responses to communism, whether perceived as savior or devil.

In the early years of the revolution, thousands of Jews, both in and outside of the Soviet Union, shared the Bolshevik fervor. Caught up in its messianic enthusiasm, they believe that communism is the answer to anti-Semitism and the Jewish problem. But these devotees were crushed by the real realities of the communist system, which used anti-Semitism as a tool of social control. Enthusiasm was followed by disillusionment and the bitterness of betrayal.

Today, after 70 years of repression and isolation, the Jews of the former Soviet empire are free. They are confronted with both opportunity and danger. They have difficult decisions to make. Should they or should they not remain in the Soviet Union? What place should they give to Jerusalem and Judaism in their life? What kind of Judaism should they seek to embrace?

Lost for so long to the Jewish world, Soviet Jews have become a gold mine for Jewish recruitment. What do they choose to remain in the Soviet Union or to emigrate to Israel or North America, they are the largest body of unaffiliated you to suddenly appear as a major factor in the modern seen. Today, the “missionaries” of traditional and reform Judaism are busy looking for “converts”. And with books and videotapes, Lubavitchers have penetrated the remote cities and villages of the Soviet Union in search of followers.

Secular humanist a cutie as I’m cannot be indifferent to this new development and this new opportunity. After 70 years of secularization, most of your dues are not religious. If they never learn about the possibility of being both meaningfully secular and meaningfully Jewish, they would use traditional expressions that are inappropriate to their convictions and lifestyle, or-more likely-they will choose to do nothing about the Jewishness at all.

We, a secular humanist excuse, have a moral obligation to reach out to our Soviet Jewish brothers and sisters, wherever they may be. We need to share with them our experience that Judaism and humanistic convictions can go hand in hand. The task is overwhelming. But it also will be exciting and energizing for a movement.

China After Tiananmen Square

The Jewish Humanist, August 1989

The massacre in Beijing will long remain in our memory. The shooting of thousands of unarmed and innocent civilians by a brutal army shattered our hopes for democracy in China. What initially seemed impossible happened.

The context of the killings only added to the despair. In other parts of the Communist world democracy was advancing. The new Supreme Soviet was meeting with free and open debate. The Communist Party had been defeated in Poland in a free election. The Hungarians were talking about a multi-party system. Until this repression it seemed as though the entire Communist world was moving inevitably to more and more freedom and democracy.

Visions of a world of universal detent and disarmament, induced by the Chinese reforms and the Gorbachev initiative, were clouded by the massacre. The fear arose that Communist conservatives would be emboldened by this success and would offer stronger resistance to reformers in other parts of the Marxist world. Holdout tyrannies, like East Germany and Czechoslovakia, might look at China and find support for their stand. Reluctant reformers in the Soviet Union would see the possibility of changing sides and winning. Rabid anti-Communists in the West would use the repression to revive their paranoia. The mood of optimism might be turned off by new, doubts and apprehensions.

How justified is this new pessimism?

There is no doubt about it. The conservatives, the octogenarians and their henchmen who have been opposed to the speed and sweep of the economic reformers, who have spent their lives in the midst of an authoritarian and Stalinist party structure, who are determined to maintain the supremacy of the Party at any cost – these men have won a victory. They have persuaded the commanders of the Army to serve their vested interests and to impose their minority will upon the people.

The forces of democracy are in danger and on the run. Deng Hsiao Ping, the senior leader who had sought to remove the octogenarians and the conservative bureaucrats from positions of power, has reaffirmed his Stalinist past by joining them. A new sinister Triumvirate of President Yang Shangkun, Prime Minister Li Peng and Securities Chief Qiao Shi have assumed power. And they may be perfectly willing to endure international rejection in order to maintain it.

The picture looks grim. Is there any hope to be extracted from the present situation?

I think there is.

This conservative regime no longer enjoys the support of the people. The deep hatred and anger that the shootings engendered will not quickly pass away. The sense of outrage has deprived the regime of the legitimacy that came so easily in the days of Mao. The “mandate of heaven” is gone. The people appear to be deeply alienated from the army and the “star” personalities of the regime. Sullen obedience is no key to the long-run future of any government. Without some form of active public cooperation no army and no police can ultimately prevail.

The massive demonstrations of students and workers for democratic reform indicate that the Chinese people are quite different from what they were ten years ago. The new freedom in the economic sphere has inevitably stimulated the demand for more freedom in the political sphere. The expectation level of both the educated elite and the urban masses has dramatically risen. What was once regarded as liberation from tyranny has now turned into tyranny. Lowering those expectations will not be easy.

The old Stalinist and behavioral assumption that people can be conditioned to endure any oppression has been -proven false by recent events in the Communist world. In both Eastern Europe and in China public resistance has revealed that human nature is not quite so malleable as social engineers would wish. As Erich Fromm has maintained, there is a limit to how much control people will endure. In the end the weakness of totalitarian regimes is that they bump up against the resentment of the unfulfilled masses. Democracy may indeed be an unstable form of government. But so is dictatorship.

It is quite clear that economic and political reform go together. Deng Hsiao Ping gave the Chinese some economic freedom without conceding any significant political liberties. He mocked Gorbachev, because Gorbachev attempted to use democracy and an open society to stimulate economic restructuring. But Deng’s contention that one can happen without the other is false. Market freedom spawns its own restless energy. The free exchange of goods leads eventually to the demand for the free exchange of ideas. And economic self-reliance strengthens the need for political self-reliance. Russia’s problem is that its economic gains will have no future without democratic reforms.

Progress is never a continuing set of forward steps. There are always many relapses. Quite often the onset of liberation is preceded by a last desperate attempt by diehard reactionaries to hold on to their power. The step-back ward is necessary to mobilize the people for the leap forward. The new repression in China will only serve to undermine what remaining credibility still adheres to the Communist Party. It may ultimately persuade even the reluctant to rebel. There is a hope yet that, sometime soon, the tanks in Tiananmen Square will be replaced by a new statue       of the Goddess of Democracy.

Visiting East Asia

The Jewish Humanist, September 1996

I have just returned from five weeks in East Asia. I had been there three times before, the first time as a Jewish Chaplain in the American army in Korea. My memories of Korea were poverty and devastation. I was anxious to see what the economic revolution of Asian capitalism had done to the settings of my memories. China, Vietnam and Indonesia were added to my voyage. I had seen China and Indonesia a decade before. Vietnam was new to me and, because of the terrible war, the most intriguing of my destinations.

I was aware, from my reading, that great transformations had taken place. I knew that the most dynamic economies of the world had their home in the Far East. I knew that the old Communism had given up its ghost and had embraced the consumer culture. Only authoritarian regimes and empty Marxist slogans remained. But I was unprepared for the dramatic difference to the past. The new urban centers of skyscrapers, expressways, automobiles, high tech factories, shopping malls, banks and motorbikes startled me. American culture had crossed the Pacific and had made a comfortable marriage with the fresh ambition and talents of eager Asians. The “goodies” of the Western world are more fascinating to these once hungry people than they are to us, somewhat jaded from overexposure.

As a Jew, visiting East Asia is different from visiting Europe or the Middle East. In the Western and Middle Eastern worlds there is an old and significant Jewish presence. The stories of both Christianity and Islam cannot be told without the Jews. The cities of Germany, Russia, Turkey and a dozen other neighboring countries have profound Jewish memories, both pleasant and unpleasant. In fact, our Jewish ancestors helped to make them great.

But China, Korea and Vietnam have no long-run significant connection to Jewish history. We all know about the native Chinese Jews who had their origin in the arrival of adventurous Persian Jewish merchants in the days of the Sung emperors. We also know about the Russian and German Jews who found their way to Harbin and Shanghai in this century, the agents of an expanding Russia or refugees from Hitler. But they are gone, a brief but exotic chapter in the saga of the Jewish people. They left no imprint on Chinese culture or Chinese memory. Tourists can find a few relics of their past in old Kaifeng or in the fast-changing streets of the former international settlements in Shanghai.

Yet in some strange way, East Asia is very Jewish to me. The young people remind me of all those Asian students in the United States and Canada who are replacing Jewish students as the winners of the top honors in science and mathematics. They are ambitious for education and success, in the same way that the Jewish immigrant children I grew up with in the ghetto of Detroit were eager for academic and worldly achievement. Their faces and food were not familiar, but their values were.

Communism had not been able to destroy the Confucian values of family loyalty, family ambition and self-discipline. As a Jew, these values were familiar to me. They were at the foundation of Jewish success. Add to this the Confucian reverence for the written word and scholarly study, embellish it with lingering bourgeois skills in commerce and trade – and you have the perfect setting for winning in an education oriented capitalistic world. In many respects the Chinese in Southeast Asia are resented in the same way as the achieving Jews in the Western world.

My experience in East Asia stood in dramatic contrast to my experience in the countries of the Muslim world. In the Muslim places where there is no oil, deep poverty prevails. While there is reverence for the written word, the text of the Koran, most study and learning are directed to religious study. The secular sciences of Western society are viewed as dangerous and subversive of the faith. A powerful religious establishment hates Western culture and offers resistance to its ideological advances. Iran, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and many other nations live with this hostility and the civil war it creates.

What unites the Jews and the people of East Asia is an overwhelming embrace of secular education. It is the key to their mutual success. No powerful Buddhist or native clergy remains in the Far East to oppose the appeal of scientific thought. Old values have been wedded to new thinking, without the reactionary intervention of fundamentalist religion. The consequence is social discipline and worldly success.

Of course, modern urban industrial capitalist civilization has brought the problems of overcrowding, crime and rudeness. They are the unavoidable accompaniments of a dynamic economy. But the growing victory over poverty outweighs their annoying intrusion. East Asia is way ahead of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. In a few decades its emerging affluent nations may become the economic and political center of our planet.

It is quite possible that, in the twenty first century, Jewish ambition and the energies of the Pacific Rim will come together in a new chapter of Jewish history. Shanghai will not be Minsk, but then neither was London, New York or Los Angeles. Maybe the Jewish love of Chinese food is a prophecy!