“Refuseniks”

Laura Bialis has put together quite a documentary on the movement for Jewish emigration during the last several decades of the Soviet Union.  She tells a very complex story, and brings together original footage of various types, interviews with refuseniks then and now, interviews with those western Jews who were so involved in their support, and interviews with contemporary scholars such as Martin Gilbert and leaders such as Mikhail Gorbachev.

For those of you who don’t remember, the story line goes like this.  First, Jews in the Soviet Union, particularly Jews who wanted to be Jewish, were treated very badly during the time period between the end of the Second World War and the death of Joseph Stalin (but for that very short period of time when Stalin thought that Israel might become a member of the Soviet influenced bloc of nations).  Even after Stalin’s death, there were still quotas, and obstacles to Jewish teaching and religious practice.

After the Israeli victory in the 1967 Arab War, a new sense of pride amongst some Soviet Jews led to a determination to leave the USSR and move to Israel.  American groups, mainly at first student groups, became quite supportive and vocal.  Jewish tourists to the USSR brought in surreptitiously prayer books and religious items, and brought out messages and photographs.  Names of individuals within the Soviet Union became known, and a group of Soviets decided that they would petition for visas to leave the USSR and move to Israel.

This brought down upon them the power of the Soviet apparatus, with applicants immediately losing their jobs, their apartments and their social standing.  When it became clear that these people were determined to leave, and to work with those outside of Russia to assist their efforts, and when two of the dissidents decided to try to hi-jack a plane and fly to Israel, the arrests, the convictions, the prison terms, the Siberian exiles, and the hunger strikes started.  And the outside support and publicity continued.

Eventually, the Jackson-Vanik amendment to a 1974 trade act conditioned certain trade arrangements between the USSR and the USA on the permission of Jews and other minorities to have the right of free immigration.  A small number of Jews were allowed to leave at first, but not the refuseniks.  Then, the numbers increased, the Helsinki Accords were signed in 1975, providing further impetus to permitted immigration.

Eventually, President Reagan got into the act with his meetings with President Gorbachev, and in 1986 Natan Sharansky and others were permitted to leave.  Only a few years later, the Berlin Wall came down, the USSR broke up, and immigration to Israel became a matter only of deciding to go.

The movie takes this complex story and makes it understandable, both in political and human terms.  Congratulations to all involved.

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