Friday, August 31, 2012

Begin and the First Soviet Jewry Conference in 1970

Yuli Koshariovsly's history of the Soviet Jewry Struggle has been published online (here) and as regards Menachem Begin's role, you can read this (here)

The first worldwide Jewish conference devoted exclusively to the issue of Soviet Jewry was convened in Brussels from February 23 to 25, 1971, two months after the first Leningrad hijacking trial. More than 1500 people representing practically all western Jewish communities from 38 countries met in Brussels.[3] Participants in the conference included the politicians David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, and Aryeh Eliav, Israeli Chief Rabbi Yaakov Kaplan, the writers and intellectuals Saul Bellow, Avraham Shlonsky, and Eli Wiesel, former U.S. Supreme Court Judge Arthur Goldberg, and Lord Grenville Janner, a deputy of the British parliament. Soviet Jewry was represented by recent arrivals from the Soviet Union ─ Vitalii Svechinskii and Mendel Gordin from Moscow, Grisha Feigin from Riga, and Karina Shur from Leningrad.[4]

It was by no means the first international effort dedicated to the situation of Soviet Jewry. “The Socialist International, the Council of Europe and other legal and parliamentary bodies had prepared reports on the problem and made representations to the Soviet authorities. Brussels was, however, the first international Jewish gathering to be held on the subject. Although this underlined the significance of the event for Jews (not since the inaugural Zionist Congress of 1896 had representatives of all Jewish communities convened at an international gathering) there were misgivings that it might restrict general public interest”[5]

In the tense atmosphere surrounding the issue of Soviet Jewry, the conference was supposed to demonstrate Jewish solidarity to the world, seek practical measures for supporting Soviet Jews, and elaborate more effective methods of pressuring the Soviet government...

...In preparing for the conference, the Liaison Bureau tried to attain a general consensus on the conference resolutions in order to prevent the proceedings from descending, as often occurs, into disputes about formulations. Nehemiah Levanon was also apprehensive about the speeches of independent Soviet Jewry activists who were critical of the establishment and its methods and of “extremists” among the recently arrived olim. He also disagreed with those who favored giving priority to the struggle for securing religious and cultural freedoms inside the Soviet Union.[18]

Levanon’s fears were nearly justified. On the second day of the conference Rabbi Meir Kahane arrived together with a former prisoner of Zion, Dov Shperling. It is worth noting that Kahane was very popular among activists in the Soviet Union. We regarded the Jewish Defense League’s protest demonstrations that included elements of violence as a legitimate counterweight to the harsh measures that the police and KGB used against the defenseless Jewish minority in the Soviet Union.
In the West, however, the Jewish establishment and the majority of independent public organizations considered Kahane’s methods absolutely unacceptable. Western Jews did not like violence and did not want to be equated with the militant rabbi. Several days before the conference, Kahane was arrested for an attempt to break through a police barrier in front of the Soviet mission in New York. Released at his lawyers’ request until sentencing, he immediately flew to Brussels.

When the guards in charge of maintaining order at the conference did not allow Kahane and his companions into the auditorium, he asked them to convey a request to the conference presidium to allow him to speak at the plenary session. The chairman of the presidium, who did not want to take responsibility for such a decision, decreed that Kahane would be allowed to speak only if the American delegation agreed to include him in their group. The Americans, apparently, did not agree and Kahane was asked to leave. He declared that in that case he would hold a press conference right there at the entrance to the building at which he would say everything that he wanted to say at the plenary session. The police, however, were already waiting at the exit. They took him to the police department and he was deported from the country the following day.

The delegates were agitated by the news of Kahane’s removal. Not all agreed with the opinion of the conference’s organizers. Menachem Begin in particular heatedly defended the right of each person to express his/her opinion, declaring indignantly, “Since when do Jews inform on their own people and facilitate their deportation?” “Passions were so fired up,” recalls Levanon, “that I began to worry about the fate of the conference. When Begin went into the hall after his speech and saw my worried look, he said, ‘Don’t despair, Nehemiah. This episode will be forgotten in time. History will remember the great conference that united the people for the struggle.”[19]

3. Albert D. Chernin, “Making Soviet Jews an Issue: A History,” A Second Exodus: The American Movement to Free Soviet Jews, Murray Friedman and Albert D. Chernin, eds. (Hanover and London:BrandeisUniversity Press, 1999, p. 60.
4.Wendy Eisen, Count Us In (Toronto: Burgher Books, 1995), p. 278.
5. “The Brussels Conference: A Retrospect”, Insight Soviet Jews, vol. 1, no.7 (September 1975), Emanuel Litvinoff, ed. (London: European Jewish Publications, Ltd.). Litvinoff participated in the work of the conference.
18. Levanon, Hakod “Nativ,” p. 381.
19. op. cit.

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