What really freed Soviet Jewry?

Did public protests or quiet diplomacy unlock the gates?

An historic conversation took place at the GA, the Jewish Federation Conference in Baltimore on Monday. Two Jewish icons, Eli Wiesel and Natan Sharansky reminisced about their involvement in the Soviet Jewry movement. The dialogue was in honor of the 25th anniversary of the historic march on Washington in whic h a quarter million Jews gathered in the last big outpouring of Jewish solidarity with Soviet Jewry.

This conversation and other initiatives in the Jewish community are looking back at this crucial moment in history. For many American Jews, standing up for Soviet Jewry was an essential building block of their own identity. They look back with pride and nostalgia, uplifted by the fact that they were part of what they see as a great moment in history.

Since the emotions run so deep about this experience it’s been almost impossible to engage in a communal conversation on whether public confrontation was really the best route to freeing Soviet Jews. Nor has there been investigation into the archives of the communist government to examine what really drove the shift in Soviet Policy.

What Sharansky and Wiesel did not recall in their conversation is that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Jewish leader who stood at the helm of the Jewish underground in Russia, by and large opposed the public confrontation approach. From the inception of the communist oppression of Jews, it was Chabad Lubavitch that kept the flame of Jewish life alive. As former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who for years was in the Mossad, said in 1994, “in the fifties when we began to send our agents to Russia we discovered a secret network that reached into every Jewish community operated by the Lubavitcher Rebbe”

The Israelis and Chabad worked hand in hand in Russia in those years. When Lishkat Hakesher, the secret arm of the Israeli prime minister’s office, began to orchestrate public confrontation in the West, the Rebbe demanded they be restrained. Based on his intimate knowledge of Russia, he felt that this would endanger Jews in the Soviet Union. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was considering accepting the Rebbe’s view but he died in office and the new Prime Minister Golda Meir was not receptive to the idea.

The Rebbe was not against activism, and he stated time and again that the movement in the US was bolstering Jewish identity there. But in his view, the road to freedom was through quiet diplomacy. The Rebbe was deeply involved in behind-the-scenes dealings with Ronald Reagan and Michael Gorbachev in an effort that is thought by some to have paved the way for Jews to leave Russia.

Now that a quarter of a century has passed, the time has come for historians and academics to a fresh look at the issue. We need to investigate more deeply what transpired in that time. It would be fascinating to uncover the records of Soviet decision-making buried deep in the Kremlin. On the Israeli side, a review of Lishkat Hakesher could prove to be treasure trove of vital information.

No question that American Jews should be proud of their efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry. But history demands that we dig a bit deeper to discover what really happened. Was it the public demonstrations or the behind-the-scenes diplomacy that finally pushed the Russians to permit Jewish immigration? Did the demonstrations, while strengthening Jewish identity in the US, have any negative impact on Jews in Russia?

As for Soviet Jewry, the Rebbe’s Army emerged from the shadows to create a Jewish renaissance. Last week, the largest Jewish museum in the world was dedicated in Moscow. In Dnepropetrovsk, the Ukrainian city where the Rebbe’s father served as chief rabbi before he was arrested and sent to the gulag, where he died, opened the largest Jewish community center on the globe.

About the Author
Rabbi David Eliezrie is the president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County California