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 Twenty people already had succumbed to this warn­ing and had withdrawn from the group.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.

How Antisemitism Was Transformed

Rise of Antisemitism, Winter 2003

Antisemitism is alive and well, but it has undergone some interesting transformations.

When antisemitism began, it was Euro­pean. Its historic roots lay in the anti-Juda­ism of early Christianity and the Middle Ages. Its trigger lay in the traumatic world of early capitalism.

In 1873 a major economic depression sent millions of Europeans into panic. The collapse of once-powerful banks, the wiping out of the savings of once-powerful people, the specter of unemployment — all combined to raise the question, “Why?” Antisemitism was a pow­erful and convincingly simple answer to this complex question. It thrived on the well- known connection of Jews with money. It won the hearts of both aristocrats and peasants who despised the leaders of the money economy.

While anti-Judaism was directed to the re­ligion of the Jew, antisemitism was focused on the “race” or ethnicity of the Jew. For the “anti- Judaites” the solution to the Jewish problem was the conversion of the Jew. For the antisemite the solution to the Jewish problem was the elimination of the Jew. Most antisemites were not interested in the religion of the Jew. They were absorbed in the social, economic, and po­litical roles that Jews played. For them conver­sion was irrelevant. It could not change the fundamentally evil nature of the Jew. Anti- Judaism imagined that the Jew was salvageable. Antisemitism knew that he was not.

In the end, if the Jew is the devil, if he has invented the evils of both capitalism and socialism, he is intolerable. Extermination flows logically from the premises of anti-semitic ideology. Expulsion and persecution are insufficient to eradicate the social evil that the Jew represents. For the arch-antisemite the Jew is the incarnation of evil. And evil has no right to exist.

The consequence of European anti­semitism was the Nazi debacle and the Holo­caust. So important was the Jewish enemy that his elimination took priority over competing items on the Nazi agenda. Even at the end of the war, when Nazi resources were exhausted, soldiers and trains were made available to execute the Final Solution.

After the Second World War, it seemed inconceivable that antisemitism would find defenders. The horror of the Shoah was so great that Western European governments outlawed antisemitic propaganda and anti-semitic political parties. Nazi symbolswere banned. Public hostility to the Jews achieved the status of a crime. Even the Ger­mans began the long repentance of repara­tions. The revival of antisemitism in Europe seemed unlikely.

Then, only three years after the war, Stalin turned his political power against the Jews of the Soviet Union. Jewish writers were elimi­nated. Jewish Communist leaders were ex­ecuted. Antisemitism shifted its European center from Western Europe to Eastern Eu­rope. If Stalin had not died in 1953, most of the Jews of Russia would have been deported to the gulags of Siberia. After his death antisemitism persisted, but it fizzled down to policies of persecution, all of it rendered lu­dicrous by the official protest that anti­semitism could not possibly exist in the Communist motherland.

Recent developments have shifted the center of antisemitism and antisemitic pro­paganda out of Europe. The reason is ironic. Jew-hatred in Europe triggered the rise of Zi­onism. And the leaders of Zionism claimed that the establishment of a Jewish state would cure antisemitism. Yet, as we know, the es­tablishment of the state of Israel provided a major provocation to the Arab and Muslim worlds. The consequence of this development was the emergence in the Muslim world of a rabid antisemitism. While many Arab anti- Zionists directed their hostility to the Israelis alone, most Arab anti-Zionists made no dis­tinction between Israelis and Jews.

After 1967, the concepts of European antisemitism and its propaganda were adopted by Arabs to explain how it was pos­sible for little Israel to defeat the combined armies of the Arab world. The answer was simple: Israel is the creation of America. And America is controlled by the Jews. American power is Jewish power. The demon of the money economy had now used its enormous political, economic, and military power to enslave the Muslim world and to corrupt its historic culture with the Jewish values of the American consumer society. For most Mus­lim fundamentalists, as well as many “Mus­lim Marxists,” Jews and America go together. And so does their evil.

Today in Cairo and Damascus, Baghdad and Karachi, the assault on the Jews is relent­less. European antisemitism has been dressed up in Muslim clothing, but the heart of the message is the same. The Jews stand at the center of human history as an evil force. Only their elimination, together with their puppets America and Israel, will save Islam and the world. Zionism has managed to generate a hatred in the Muslim world equal in inten­sity to the hatred in Europe that brought it into existence.

The September 11 scenario revealed this obsession. New York was chosen as the main target of the Muslim fundamentalist terrorists because it was viewed as the true capital of Jewish power. The World Trade Center was the temple of money and of the global economy, which represented the corrupt na­ture of Jewish power.

The return of virulent antisemitism to Europe arrived with the Muslim immigrants who are now pouring into Europe. The popu­lations of England, France, and Germany have already been radically altered by this migra­tion. Since the birthrates of native Europeans are low and the reproduction rate of Muslim immigrants is high, the future is clear. Europe will become increasingly more Muslim.

The centers of antisemitism in Europe no longer lie in the aristocracy or in the army or among the intellectuals. In the social sphere Jews are now able to achieve the summits of power and fame. On the contrary, the centers of antisemitism now lie among the poor Mus­lim immigrants and among the Europeans on the left who champion their cause. Anti­semitism has always been as much a disease of the poor as of the rich. For the economic losers of the global economy, antisemitism provides a simple and “credible” answer. The antisemitic violence that took place last April in France was the product of the inflamma­tory antisemitic propaganda that now floats around the Muslim world.

The shift of antisemitism from the Chris­tian to the Muslim world has produced ironic political consequences. The forces in West­ern Europe that hated Jews now also hate Muslims. But they generally hate the Jews less than they hate the Muslims. After all, Euro­pean Jews are committed to European culture. The Muslims represent a darker anti- European force. Plus — using the political principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend — the Jews suddenly emerge as useful allies of the anti-Muslim right. Even Monsieur LePen of the racist National Front has said as much. History does have the power to pro­duce absurdities.

It is certainly true that arranging for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians will re­duce the hostility of many Arabs and many Muslims toward Jews. But it is also true that for diehard Muslim fundamentalists the war against Western culture is also the war against the Jews and their American “puppets.” While Europe still harbors many antisemites on both the right and the left, the center of Jew-hatred now lies in the Semitic world and in the Mus­lim culture that the Arabs pioneered.

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 – Bosnia

The Jewish Humanist, August 1993, Vol. XXX, Number 1

Bosnia. Before last year most Americans had never heard of the place. Now like Vietnam, Bosnia has been seared into the consciousness of the world. Bosnia now means genocide. 

Bosnia is a land of mountains and valleys in the Balkans. About thirteen hundred years ago it was invaded by Slavs wandering south from their northern homeland. After they conquered the land, the Slavs split into two nations. The Slavs, who converted to Catholic Christianity, became Croats. The Slavs, who converted to Orthodox Christianity became Serbs. Because of their religious differences the Croats and Serbs came to hate each other. 

In the fourteenth century an enemy arrived from the south. They were the Ottoman Turks and they were Muslim. Having conquered the Serbs and Croats, they converted many of them to Islam. The Slavic converts became the Bosnians (sic). The Serbs and the Croats continued to hate each other. But they now also hated the Turks. And they, especially, hated the Bosnians, whom they regarded as traitors, and whose privileged status, as friends of the Turks, they resented.  

In time, the Serbians won their independence. After the First World War, when the Turks and their German allies were defeated, the Serbians were rewarded with the gift of Croatia and  Bosnia. The new enlarged Serbia was called Yugoslavia (land of the south Slavs), and was dominated by the Serbian military. 

During World War II the Germans invaded and conquered Yugoslavia. They dismembered Yugoslavia and rewarded the Croatians with Bosnia. Croatian fascists, aided by Bosnian Muslims turned on the Serbs and massacred thousands of them. For the Serbians it was a “holocaust”.  Their hatred of the Croatians and the Bosnians grew even more intense. 

When the Russians gave Yugoslavia to Tito and the Communists, Tito tried to erase the differences between Serbs, Croats and Bosnians to create a new “Yugoslav” identity.But the success of his campaign depended on the success of Communism and on his own personal immortality. Neither happened. Tito died and Communism failed. And when Communism failed, Yugoslavia fell apart. 

First, the Croats seceded from Yugoslavia.  And then the Bosnians seceded.  Both actions provoked the Serbians to military action.  They wanted to “rescue” the hundreds of thousands of Serbs who lived in both Croatia and Bosnia.  They also wanted to wreak vengeance for the fascist “holocuast”.  They were very self-confident.  They were in possession of almost all of the military equipment of the former Yugoslav army.  Their leadership were (sic) former communists who traded Marxism for Chauvanism (sic).  They gave guns to violent and angry men who assumed the status of Serbian militia.  A cruel war became inevitable. 

The war has been worse than horrible.  It has given license to criminals to commit crimes in the name of patriotism. 

It has revived old hatreds which forty years of Communism had suppressed.  It has turned neighbor against neighbor.  In a land where Serbs, Croats and Bosnians lived intermingled and intermarried the war has re-erected human barriers that were falling down. 

In the Second World War the Croatian fascists were the criminals.  In this war the Serbian nationalists are the criminals.  Croats and Bosnians have committed atrocities.  But the overwhelming majority of the atrocities have been committed by the Serbian military and para-military.  Rape, pillage and destruction have followed the Serbian military with terrifying consistency.  Thousands have been killed.  Over half the people of Bosnia are refugees. 

At first the Croatian supported the Bosnians. But, when they saw that no one would intervene to save them, they turned against them, they struck a deal with the Serbians. Croatans and Serbians would divide Bosnia. The war would end. The Bosnians would be without independence and without a home. 

The Bosnians are today a people abandoned. They have no allies or active friends. They are the victims of genocide. They have been driven from half of their territory. They have no effective arms with which to defend themselves. Their Serbian and Croatian enemies are eager to dispose of them so that they can divvy up their territory. All that is left is a bombed out capital, a few disconnected towns and refugee centers teaming (sic) with the homeless. When peace comes they will have just enough land to constitute an “Indian reservation”.  They will be the prisoners of the Serbs and the Croats. 

During this terrible War many nations expressed outrage. The Germans were outraged. The Italians were outraged. British and Americans were outraged. But no one did anything. The United Nations sent humanitarian aid. The Security Council imposed sanctions on the Serbians. But nothing was done to frighten the Serbians into withdrawal. No one bombed their gun emplacements. No one sent adequate arms to the Bosnians so that they could defend themselves against slaughter. 

Clinton said he would do something. But, in the end, he did nothing. He sent his wimpish Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, to mobilize our European allies into effective action. They refused to help and Christopher accepted their refusal without resistance.  The nation that led the world against Saddam Hussein in a grand coalition was “powerless” to prevent the genocide of a small vulnerable nation. 

There are multiple consequences for this neglect, for this failure to take action. 

A people that is entitled to its territory, its independence, and its survival has been destroyed.  Bosnian refugees like Jewish refugees in the last war will seek asylum in the cities of the West or linger in camps on the borders of Serbia and Croatia. 

Muslim Albanians, resident in the Serbian province of Kosovo (where they are the overwhelming majority) are next on the list of victims.  Serbian nationalists will deal with them in the same way that they dealt with the Muslim Bosnians.  They will terrorize them and drive them away.  It is clear that neither America nor the European powers are prepared to do anything to prevent another atrocity. 

Fascism in Serbia will grow stronger. The military victory will strengthen the power of strongman Milosevic and will lead to the suppression of the Serbian democratic opposition.  Serbia now represents the kind of chauvinistic authoritarian state-supported by fascists and former Communists-that America said it would not allow to rise from the ruins of the now defunct Communist empire. 

The stature of the West in Muslim eyes is now much reduced.  It is clear that Western Christians are not prepared to do anything to rescue a Muslim nation in Europe.  The Muslim powers have new reason to distrust the West and America.  Even though Muslim governments would have done more to help, they see themselves as helpless without Western intervention. 

The “world order”, which was reinforced after the Cold War with the American resistance to Iraqi aggression, has now been undermined by American ambivalence.  Every two-bit fascist dictator now knows that America and Europe will do nothing to stop genocidal war unless oil is involved.  The moral authority of America, which was high, is now low. 

Had America stood firm two months ago, she would have prevailed.  Milosevic had already capitulated before the threat of American intervention. But once he knew that America was not serious, he returned to his belligerency. 

Clinton lost an opportunity to demonstrate that he was a strong leader.  And the Bosnian people lost their life. 

We Jews, the victims of genocide, cannot be indifferent to what happened.  The Bosnian cause is our cause.  Our government needs to hear our displeasure  One more Bosnia in easstern Europe and fascism will be the heir of communism. 

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: I Want You to Come to Russia With Me

The Jewish Humanist, January 1994, Vol. XXX, Number 6

I want you to come to Russia with me. 

Russia is one of the most interesting and exciting countries in the word, especially now that so many changes are taking place.  Once the center of the Communist and Soviet empire, Russia is a troubled free nation struggling to determine its path to survival and success.  Heir to the power of the Tsars and the Bolsheviks, its chief cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg are places of cultural and architectural power. 

The rule of Communism and the victory of Yeltsin have set Russia on a course of dramatic change.  Private industry, private business and private property have now entered into the fabric of Russian life.  Free speech, free religion and free assembly have become the Russian norm.  While most Russians are still poor, some have mastered the new system to become successful.  Communist and fascist  thinking are still strong.  But they are unable to find a working majority, even when they have combined forces. 

St. Petersburg, which has repudiated the name of Leningrad, remains one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  Built by Peter the Great two years after the founding of Detroit, it became the capital of the Russian Empire.  For two centuries the Tsars and the Russian aristocracy lavished their wealth on this northern metropolis by the Baltic Sea.  The result is an inner city of startling palaces, churches and museums which even Bolshevik hostility could not diminish.  The promenade along the Neva is still one of the most extraordinary urban vistas in the world. 

Moscow has been a city of trade and military power for over seven centuries.  Its Kremlin fortress provides a formidable and manificent center to a metropolis which has created successive circular roads around it.  Many Communist monuments still remain, including the tomb of Lenin.  And Stalinist skyscrapers and Brezhev apartments still dominate the landscape.  But the charm of old neighborhoods is being restored, especially the westside Greenwich Village called the Arbat.  Today Moscow is the center of the economic transformation.  Every luxury, Russian or other,   if you have the money.  And the streets are alive with aggressive private enterprise.  The mother city of Russia has gone back to its commercial roots. 

Around Moscow are the wonders of the early Russian state.  Suzdal and Yaroslavl were early rivals to Moscow’s ambitions.  Later they were absorbed into Muscovite ambition.  Magnificently restored, these cities, with their walls, churches and fortresses, represent the patriotic nostalgia which is now spreading all over Russia. 

Russia is also a Jewish country.  From the conquest of the Polish state to the Bolshevik Revolution, the Tsarist Empire encompassed the largest Jewish community of the world.  Many of the members of our congregation are the children and grandchildren of Russian grandparents.  Today Russian Jewry is a traumatized remnant of what was before.  It has been decimated by the Holocaust, by Communist oppression and by emigration.  Some one million Jews survive in Russia, together with another million in the other countries of the former Soviet Union-like the Ukraine and Belarus. 

In the last three years Humanistic Judaism has come to Russia.  An Association of Humanistic Jews has been created, with Simyon Avgustevitch the Education Officer of the Russian Jewish Council, as its president.  Members come from some thirty-five Jewish communities in Russia and from other countries in the former Soviet Union.  Many of them are very young.  While these young people are secular, they are searching to discover what it means to be Jewish.  Deprived of any real connection to their Jewish past by decades of Communist repression, they are enthusiastic to learn all they can about Jewish history and culture.  Only a well-informed disciplined group of Humanistic Jews will be able to offer resistance to the army of Orthodox missionaries who have now descended on the land. 

The emergence of this new association, together with the importance of Russian Jewish liberation, has encouraged The International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews to hold its Fifth Biennial Conference in Moscow in September of this year. 

The theme of the Conference will be, ”What Does It Mean To Be Jewish” (sic) the very question that most Russian Jews are asking today.  The Conference will begin on Friday evening, September 23 and will conclude on Sunday afternoon, September 25.  The meeting will be an extraordinary opportunity to hear prominent Jewish speakers from four continents and an opportunity to enter into dialogue and friendship with fellow Humanistic Jews from all over the former Soviet Union. 

The International Federation trip is the special way you can get to Russia and the Conference, together with dozens of other Humanistic Jews from North America, Europe and Israel.  At the heart of the trip will be the Conference.  But it will also include nine exciting days touring St. Petersburg and Moscow, visiting historic places, attending artistic events, and tasting the emerging reality of a free Jewish Russia.  The basic trip will last for twelve days, beginning right after Yom Kippur on Sunday, September 17 and returning on Tuesday, September 27.  If you want to linger for a while in Russia or Europe before returning, many options exist.  The officially designated manager of our travel is Connie Wolberg.  She can help you create whatever “package” you want. 

I am anxious to share this experience with you.  This trip to Russia is not only an adventure in travel.  It is especially an expression of our commitment to the future of the Jewish people in Russia and to the outreach of our very own Humanistic Judaism. 

The Rabbi Writes: Moscow/1989

The Jewish Humanist, January 1990, Vol. XXVI, Number 6


I went to Moscow last October, right after Yom Kippur.  I was on my way to attend the Board meeting of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Jerusalem.  Now Moscow is not exactly on the direct route between Detroit and Jerusalem.  But I had received word from Jerusalem that there were leaders in the newly organized Jewish communities who were interested in Humanistic Judaism.  The time seemed right for making contact. 

I had been to the Soviet Union three times before.  My first trip in 1970, in the heyday of the Brezhnev regime, encompassed European Russia.  My second trip, in 1986 involved a dialogue in Moscow between leaders of North American humanism.  During all three visits I was very much aware of the repressive nature of the Communist regime and the insidious nature of Communist antisemitism. 

Soviet antisemitism was not Nazi antisemitism.  It was neither overt nor violent.  Its primary purpose was to limit the participation of Jews in the political, intellectual and cultural life of the Soviet Union.  Its secondary purpose was to limit the contact of Jews with the majority of their co-ethnics outside the country, especially those in America and Israel.  Its roots lay in historic Russian antisemitism, the paranoiac fear of ‘cosmopolitan’ people with outside connections, the foreign policy goal of winning the support of Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East. The resentment of Jewish intellectuality and sheer envy. 

Communist antisemitism was rarely overt.  It never openly denounced Jews.  It preferred to condemn Zionists and Zionism.  It pretended to favor Jewish national identity and Jewish national rights.  It always found ‘patriotic’ Jews to support its Jewish policies.  If you were a successful Jewish professional who was not interested in doing anything about your Jewish identity and who never aspired to the highest positions of political and cultural life, then you could live your discreet life without harassment.  While the communist antisemites seemed to encourage assimilation, their antisemitism also prevented it.  Most Jews remained Jews without any positive Jewish content to their lives. 

My trip to Moscow filled me with excitement.  I knew that the Gorbachev reforms had undermined Communist antisemitism and released a tremendous new energy of Jewish assertiveness and creativity.  Jewish cultural and educational associations were emerging spontaneously all over the Soviet Union.  Jewish emigration was also growing with thousands queuing up at the American Embassy to secure their visa applications.  With the knowledge of all these new developments I was excited to discover what was really happening.  Would enough Soviet Jews remain to make Soviet Jewry a viable cultural community? 

From the moment of my arrival in Moscow I was aware of the ‘revolution’ that had taken place in Russia. Six Orthodox rabbis with books and videos were standing in the airport.  The customs officials were uninterested in my baggage.  The hotel floor spies no longer existed.  Citizens openly talked about politics, often complaining bitterly about the Government and writing foreigners to enter the fray.  Newspapers were filled with provocative articles about official corruption and the need for ending the supremacy of the Communist Party.  Street demonstrations against the Party were held with no police interference.  Religious ceremonies were being held inside the Kremlin.  And even pedestrians now had the courage to cross the streets against the red light. 

Ensconced in my favorite hotel, the National, directly across from the Kremlin, I had the opportunity to meet and talk with about 35 people who were leaders in the Russian Jewish community.  I also traveled around Moscow to visit new Jewish groups and to experience the new home of the Jewish Theater Group in Taganskaya Square. 

From the very beginning it was obvious to me that, despite the new freedom of glasnost, the Jewish community was in deep trouble.  Its new energy and creativity was matched by grave social dangers. 

The first was economic hardship.  While glasnost (the dismantling of repression) is working well, perestroika (economic reform) is doing badly.  Despite the Gorbachev promises of more consumer goods and higher standards of living, shortages are everywhere.  Sugar is rationed.  Soap and meat are unavailable.  Long lines continue for available shoddy goods.  The infrastructure is crumbling.  Shabbiness is everywhere. 

The reasons for this continuing disaster are obvious.  The heavy economic hand of centralized planning has not been lifted.  Very little entrepreneurial spirit remains after 70 years of Communist rule.  And what does survive is deeply resented by many.  Deficits and technological backwardness hold back development and make change difficult.  As long as the Party is involved with the economy, the disaster persists. 

Emigration for many Jews is a better alternative than poverty and economic struggle.  Since they have little hope that the Communist Party can change anything for the better, they want to get out before an economic collapse will usher in other chaos or fascistic repression. 

The second social danger is violent antisemitism.  While glasnost has liberated democrats to speak their opinions, it has also freed bigots to speak theirs.  Overt fascistic antisemitism has reappeared.  This variety is not benign, like the Communistic version.  It is open and straightforward, and aimed at the destruction of the Jews.  A new political organization Ramyat, intensely anti-Communist and nostalgic for the old Russia, accuses the Jews of inventing Communism and imposing it on the Russian people.  And now they say that Communism has failed, the Jews have decided ‘to flee the country like rats fleeing a sinking ship’.  Ramyatniks hold rallies,, publish journals and speak freely in loud voices, in public subways.  Last June a rumor swept the Soviet Union that a mass pogrom was imminent. 

Needless to say, Jews are terrified.  With the collapse of Communism, a nationalistic fascism is as much a possibility as liberal democracy.  Hundreds of thousands of assimilated Jews, who had no thought of leaving the Soviet Union are now thinking of emigration.  When it is all over two-thirds of the two million Soviet Jews may choose to leave.  It will certainly happen if the economy continues to deteriorate and the Jews are held responsible for the decline. 

In the midst of this turmoil the Jewish community is divided by the competition of rival factions.  The Orthodox, reinforced by American and Israeli mercenaries, are aggressively trying to win the hearts of Russian Jewry!  Reform and Conservative agencies are trying to carve out their own niche.  Anti-government groups are zealously intimidating Jewish groups that are willing to cooperate with the Gorbachev regime and Party apparatchiks.  Amidst the free-for-all, there are personal rivalries and a widespread skepticism that in a few years, there will be any significant Soviet Jewish community around to organize. 

Secular Jews are very vulnerable.  Deprived of Jewish culture, and not understanding the alternative ways to be Jewish, they are easy victims of aggressive Orthodox missionaries.  Right now they need literature and videos about Secular Humanistic Judaism.  The many secular Jewish academicians and leaders I spoke to say that the first need is to enable secular Jews to feel secular and legitimately Jewish.  Existing literature needs to be translated and disseminated among confused people.  Since the hated former regime is associated with dogmatic secularity, the words ‘humanism’ and ‘humanistic’ are more attractive labels. 

At the end of December, a congress of Jewish cultural associations from over 75 cities of the Soviet Union met in Moscow to establish a national federation.  Mike Chlenn, a 49 year old ethnographer from Moscow (with whom I spent a memorable evening) was the organizer of the conference and became its leader.  As he said to me:  ‘I do not know whether we are the Gevra Kadesha (burial society) of Russian Jewry or the dawn of a new cultural renaissance.  Only time will tell.’ 

The Rabbi Writes – Mikhail Gorbachev

The Jewish Humanist, February 1990, Vol. XXVI, Number 7

Time Magazine is right. Mikhail Gorbachev was the hero of the 80s. 

Gorbachev is proof that personalities do make a difference in history. Political, social and economic forces have their place. But determined individuals and crucial positions of leadership, have the power to transform the world – for either good or evil. 

Would the Greek Empire have existed without Alexander the Great? Would the New Deal have worked without Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Would the Holocaust have taken place without Adolf Hitler? 

Of course, times have to be right for change. But they are only the setting. Someone has to take advantage of the opportunity. The economic difficulties of the Russian Empire were not the creation of Gorbachev. Nevertheless, could have been confronted with many different strategies. More repression was one option. The decision of Gorbachev to choose glasnost and perestroika was not inevitable. Nor was his election to the leadership of the Communist Party. Several important conservative members of the Politburo were absent from Moscow on the day that Chernenko died. His coming to power was almost by chance. 

Because of Gorbachev Europe is no longer the same. The Cold War is ending. The Russian people are free to speak their mind. Subject nationalities are asserting their right to self – determination. The Soviet Satellites of Eastern Europe have been liberated. The hegemony of the Communist party has been repudiated by former Stalinist regimes. The Berlin Wall has come tumbling down. Jews of the Soviet Union are free to emigrate. 

It is quite clear that none of this would have happened without the boldness and political skills of Gorbachev. The collapse of the Stalinist governments of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria was only possible because the people no longer feared the intervention of the Russian army. The Brezhnev Doctrine so dramatically manifested in the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, had been eliminated. The old rulers were left naked and defenseless before their own people. 

I do not believe that Gorbachev was fully aware of the consequences of his decisions. I am not sure that he would have made them had he been fully aware. His hope and vision were to reform and strengthen the Communist parties through liberalization. He wanted the social system to ride the crest of reform, not to be destroyed by its impact. 

What he wanted did not happen. He underestimated the ability of the Communist hierarchies to adapt to necessary change. He also underestimated the hostility to Communism which existed among subject peoples. Once freed from the fear of retaliation the mobs became uncontrollable in their demands. The Communist establishment came tumbling down like a house of cards. 

In the chaos of the last year the desire for personal freedom has taken second place to the power of nationalism. Long suppressed nations want autonomy and Independence more than they want economic restructuring. In the melee of conflicting national interests the Soviet Union may disintegrate into an arena of warring states. Fueled by patriotism, resentment and chauvinistic ambition, the nations of the former Russian empire may turn to an agenda never envisioned by Gorbachev. Armenia and Azerbaijan are just the beginning of the trouble. 

Will Gorbachev be able to survive these unforeseen consequences? Or will the emerging chaos spell his undoing?  

In recent weeks his nerves seem to be very much on edge. He delivered an hysterical speech in the Soviet legislature about his loyalty to Communism. He harshly scolded the Lithuanian audiences he had sought to charge. He told his wife to shut up in public. 

His survival in power is important. There is no other Russian leader charismatic enough to provide the image of leadership in the midst of this political storm. 

What is quite clear is that he cannot survive so long as he ties his fortune to the Communist Party. What has happened in the Soviet satellites will also happen in the Soviet Union. The discredited political structures cannot satisfy the demands of the people for personal freedom, economic Improvement in national assertiveness. If he insists on defending Communism he will fall with Communism. 

If Gorbachev can advance his boldness one more step, he will present himself as a reformist president who is not bound by the political and party structures of the past. If he does so, he will discover that his people will follow where he leads, that his conservative enemies will be stymied by their own confusion and that the support of Western nations will readily be forthcoming. 

If he fails to do so, he will only grow more frustrated amid the bewildering and unforeseen consequences of his own decisions. Attacked by both liberals and conservatives, his triumphant victories will degenerate into hysterical last – stands. He will be destroyed by what he created.  

Gorbachev was the hero of the ‘80’s.  Whether he will be the hero of the ‘90’s will be largely up to him – up to his vision of his role in history.  

The Rabbi Writes – Exodus of Jews from the Soviet Union

The Jewish Humanist, December 1990, Vol. XXVII, Number 5

The exodus of Jews from the Soviet Union continues.  It is one of the most dramatic events in Jewish History in modern times. 

One hundred years ago the majority of the Jews of the world lived in Eastern Europe, especially within the old Russian Empire.  Although oppressed by the Tsarist government, they constituted a vital national entity.  Reinforced by Yiddish and Ashkenazic culture, they saw themselves as a distant ethnic group.  Antisemitism made their national yearnings all the more powerful. 

But this community was undermined by three historic developments.  The opening up of North America to mass immigration allowed the oppressed Jews of Eastern Europe to flee antisemitism and to find refuge in a culture of freedom and opportunity.  Hundreds of thousands of Russian, Polish and Romanian Jews abandoned their homes and rushed to America.  The Bolshevik Revolution, which initially was identified with the liberation of the Jewish People and which had recruited thousands of idealistic Jews to its Marxist standard, turned against the Jews, Zionism and Yiddish culture.  Cut off from the rest of the Jewish people by Stalinist isolation, Soviet Jewry ceased to function as a Jewish community.  The rise of Nazi fascism and the Holocaust which it created, destroyed the heart of the Ashkenazic homeland.  The critical members of Yiddish speaking Jews no longer existed outside.  Outside of a few major cities Eastern Europe had become a Jewish wasteland. 

The present exodus of the Jews from the Soviet Union is the final stage in the dissolution of the Ashkenazic nation.  If, as predicted, one million Jews choose to leave the Soviet republics, the aging and indifferent Jews who remain will not be able to constitute a significant community.  For all practical purposes, the Ashkenazic nation, which lasted for over one thousand years, will be dead. 

Why is this exodus taking place especially now when the Communist tyranny has collapsed and the Jews are free to be what they want to be? 

The reasons are not difficult to find.  The economic chaos in the Soviet Union has totally demoralized the population, both Jewish and non-Jewish.  Most Soviet citizens have no hope that the severe economic problems will be solved in the near future.  Since Jews are allowed to leave and have a place to go, they choose to leave.  Only patriotic masochists would choose to stay. 

The major reason for Jewish flight is the terrifying re-emergence of overt antisemitism.  Under Communism antisemitism was controlled for state purposes.  Jews suffered discrimination but they were not generally exposed to violence.  Today, with the chaos of the new freedom, violent fascistic antisemitism is again part of the Russian scene.  Newspapers, rallies and public political figures denounce the Jews for corrupting Russian life and for both inventing and destroying communism.  Violence and threats of violence are increasing.  In this environment even Jews who had no interest in Jewish identity and who had never contemplated immigration for themselves are clamoring to leave. 

What does this dramatic exodus mean for the Jewish people? 

It means that the character of American Jewry will continue to be altered by the arrival of Soviet Jews in the United States.  Several hundred thousand Jews, distributed throughout the major centers of American Jewish life make a difference.  Their needs and their culture will help to shape the future of the American Jewish community. 

It means that Jewish life in Western Europe will be altered by the arrival of thousands of Soviet Jewish refugees.  Unable to secure entry to North America and unable to survive economically in Israel, many Russian Jews will seek to go where economic opportunity beckons.  Even restrictive immigration policies will not deter them.  They will slip through the cracks.  They may even be responsible for the revival of a significant Jewish community in prosperous Germany. 

It means that Israel will be strengthened by the arrival of nearly a million immigrants.  The security of the state demands more Jews.  But Israel will also be changed.  The secular forces in the Jewish state will be enhanced because Soviet Jews are overwhelmingly secular.  As long as the Labor party continues to abandon its socialist heritage (and Soviet Jews are overwhelmingly anti-socialist) it should benefit from the Russian arrivals.  The ultra-Orthodox are worried and should be worried.  Ashkenazic hegemony will also be restored.  One million Ashkenazi Jews will be a powerful balance to the growing Sephardic and Oriental presence in Isaeli life. 

What does this new exodus mean for us as Humanistic Jews? 

It means that we have a large new community of Jews in the Soviet Union, Israel and America who would be “turned on” by Humanistic Judaism, if they knew that it existed. 

Many Soviet immigrants are indifferent to Jewish identity.  Others are trying to find their roots in the religious revival, but many of them have a reawakened Jewish consciousness which they cannot fully express in the conventional Judaism which they have encountered. 

But we cannot reach these prospective Humanistics Jews through English and English speaking “missionaries”.  We can only reach them through Russian and Russian leaders.  The Orthodox missionaries are already working full time to seduce the “newly awakened” to traditional Judaism.  They have millions of dollars available to them to publish literature, produce videos and establish schools to broadcast their message. 

We cannot match their resources.  But we need to match their zeal before we lose one of the most important opportunities to bring confused secular Jews to Humanistic Judaism. 

On Monday, December 10, Nikoli Solovyev, a leader of Soviet Jews in the state of Israel, will be our speaker.  He is a member of the Israel Association of Secular Humanistic Jews.  He has contacts, through his work, with thousands of Russian Jews in both Israel and the Soviet Union.  He believes that the message of Humanistic Judaism is exactly what most Russian Jews need and want, if only they knew about it.  Come and hear how we can respond to this unique exodus in Jewish history. 

The Rabbi Writes – Soviet Jews

The Jewish Humanist, August 1991, Vol. XXVIII, Number 1

The mass exodus of Jews from the Soviet Union is the major event of Jewish history in the last decades of the twentieth century.  Over 600,000 Soviet Jews (out of a potential 2 to 3 million) have already left.  Thousands more are waiting to leave. 

Up until last year the overwhelming majority of Soviet emigrants (sic) came to the United States.  But, ever since America imposed a severe quota limitation on the entry of Russian Jews, the flow of emigrants has turned to Israel. 

One year ago the Israelis were ecstatic.  They expected that 2 million Jewish immigrants would arrive from the Soviet Union.  The Jewish population of Israel would take a quantum jump in size.  New Ashkenazic “blood”, with Western education and secular values, would be pumped into the increasing Oriental bloodstream of the nation. The Arab Palestinians would shrink to a smaller and less dangerous percentage of the national census.  Enough Jews would now be available to hold even the West Bank and Gaza.   

Today Israelis are now less ecstatic.  Both their expectations and the expectations of the immigrants have been sobered by reality and unforeseen events.  The Soviet Jewish stream to Israel is slowing down. 


The reasons are not difficult to find. 

There are virtually no jobs in Israel for Soviet immigrants. Unlike the first wave of Russian refugees who came to America and Israel and were often “working class”, the present wave is well educated and very professional.  The new immigrants are physicians, lawyers, accounts, engineers and scientists.  In theory they are, by virtue of their skills and their training, the best immigrants that any nation could possibly want.  But Israel cannot absorb them because her economy is small and weak.  She already has too many doctors and engineers.  Unemployment is high.  The Sephardic underclass is rumbling and full of discontent.  Soviet emigrants are willing to be street cleaners and garbage collectors temporarily, but not indefinitely.  Already many of the new immigrants are seeking to emigrate.  The Soviet Jewish work profile does not match the economic realities of Israel. 

The dire predictions (me, a year ago) of rampant Soviet antisemitism and imminent pogroms have not been fulfilled.  There are undoubtedly millions of hating ahd hateful antisemites in the Soviet Union who would love to kill Jews.  There are certainly political parties (like Pamyat) whose platforms are opening anti-Jewish and who call fot the expulsion of Jews from Russian life.  But their power is either stalemated or declining  Despite the chaos, the forces of liberalism and Westernization are presently in the ascendancy.  Jews feel themselves less in danger than they did one year ago.  Giving up secure jobs and apartments, no matter how limited, seems irrational if the only reward is to travel to unemployment. 

New Soviet laws have granted the right of emigration to all Soviet citizens.  Revolution of revolutions!  It is now possible for everybody to leave the “socialist paradise” provided, of course, that you can find a place to go.  The fear of many Jews that must get out now or never get out, is, therefore, understandably relieved.  Many Jews are waiting to see what will happen to the liberalization program before they make the decision to leave.  There is now no urgency.  Alternatives can be weighed more carefully. 

New Soviet laws have also created  a dilemma for many departing Jews.  Up until recently it was possible for Soviet Jews to move to Israel and retain possession of their apartments and assets back in the Soviet Union.  No longer!  Taking out citizenship in another nation or serving in the armed forces of any foreign country is now regarded as repudiation of Soviet citizenship and punishes the “traitor” with the forfeiture of property.  Many Jews did not mind moving to Israel provided they had the theoretical security of their property back home.  But with the present threat of losing their hard earned assets, many Jews are giving second thoughts to departure. 

Fewer Jews will move to Israel.  Unless the Israelis can revise their present economic distress and create hundreds of thousands of new professional jobs, more and more Soviet Jews will be reluctant to come.  Most emigrants have minimal interest in Zionism or a religious (sic) Judaism.  They are only in Israel because they could not get into the United States.  The likely total of newcomers will be closer to 500,000 than 2 million. 

Many immigrants will use Israel as a pass-through to other “more desirable” countries.  Despite the many barriers to immigrants set up by highly developed nations in Europe and North America, ways and means will be found by desperate and ambitious Soviet Jews to enter Germany, Italy, France and England, as well as Canada and the United States.  Russian Jews will be more widely dispersed than initially imagined.  Soviet Jewish emigration from Israel will also negatively affect the attitude of Israelis to the new immigrants, and their willingness to make sacrifices for the new arrivals. 

A fairly substantial number of Jews will remain in the Soviet Union, simply because there will be no other more attractive or pragmatic alternative.  They will need to construct communal institutions of their own.  The prediction that Soviet Jewry will vanish and that we do not have to do anything about their future in the Soviet Union is simply naive.  Much work needs to be done to strengthen Jewish life in Russia.  Jews who choose to remain deserve as much consideration as Jews who choose to leave.  Since most Soviet Jews are not religious, a well-organized cultural Judaism is the waive (sic) of the future.  And cultural Judaism is Humanistic Judaism. 

The dream of many Israeli right-wingers that 2 million Russian Jews will help them hold the West Bank and Gaza is now only a dream.  Realistic numbers of Soviet immigrants do not support any argument for political intransigence.  The new immigrantion is no panacea for the ultra-nationalists.  In the end, the Palestinians will not drown in a sea of [Text Wrapping Break]Soviet militants. 

The coming years will most likely bring a new more realistic approach to the problems and needs of Soviet Jews.  The Soviet Jewish problem will shift from how to get Jews out of the Soviet Union as quickly as possible to how to develop and maintain a viable Jewish identity in the Soviet Union.  In this shift, Humanistic Judaism has an important role to play.