Russia’s threats to shut down Jewish Agency raise alarm bells for those who remember the past

During the Cold War, Russia’s refusal to allow Jews to leave the country reflected its political aims. The same is likely true today, a Jewish studies scholar explains.

By Shaul Kelner Published on Aug 11, 2022.
During the Cold War, Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union was tightly restricted. Dzurag/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 sparked a surge of refugees fleeing the war zone, but political repression and economic uncertainty have also prompted emigration from Russia itself. Among the emigrants are Russian Jews, 16,000 of whom have left for Israel in the nearly six months since the war’s start.

Now, Russia’s Justice Ministry is threatening the organization that helps the emigrants leave. A Moscow court held a preliminary hearing on July 28, 2022, about the ministry’s application to dissolve the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

The Jewish Agency, a nonprofit with government ties that is older than the country itself, helps Jews around the world who want to immigrate to Israel. The move to shut down its operations in Russia has raised alarm – particularly among people who see it as turning back the clock to a time, not so long ago, when Soviet Russia forced Jews to endure state-sponsored antisemitism while trampling on their right to emigrate.

Soviet antisemitism

On paper, the Soviet Union vowed to create an egalitarian society. In reality, it denied rights to minority populations, including Jews.

The government closed down Jewish schools and cultural institutions, criminalized the teaching of Hebrew, murdered Jewish leaders, orchestrated anti-Jewish campaigns in the press and in the courts and created glass ceilings that blocked Jews’ ability to advance at school and in the workplace. In 1966, during a telephone address to Jewish Americans, Martin Luther King Jr. called it “a kind of spiritual and cultural genocide.”

Cold War politics made the predicament worse. The Soviet government’s domestic persecutions of Jews were bound up in its foreign policy toward Israel. When the country declared independence in 1948, the U.S. and USSR each raced to secure its allegiance. After Israel aligned with the West, however, the Soviet Union became patron of the Arab states and broke diplomatic ties with Israel in 1967.

During the string of Arab-Israeli wars from the 1950s to 1970s, the USSR accompanied military support for Egypt and Syria with anti-Jewish campaigns at home. Using “anti-Zionism” as a dog whistle, Soviet propaganda resurrected classic antisemitic stereotypes of Jewish conspiracies for global domination.

International pressure

In the 1960s, Soviet Jews began trying to escape their predicament by applying for exit permits to emigrate. A movement for emigration rights sprang up among Jews in the USSR, led by activists who sought to go to Israel. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives all people the right to leave their country, but the Soviet government refused the applications for emigration permits and heaped more troubles on those who had dared to ask.

Stuck in the Soviet Union, these “refuseniks,” as they came to be known, lost their jobs and housing and were harassed by the secret police. Leaders of the emigration rights movement – including Natan Sharansky, who went on to become chairman of the Jewish Agency and deputy prime minister of Israel – were arrested and sent to prison camps or Siberian exile.

As Soviet Jews fought to emigrate, a global human rights campaign mobilized on their behalf – a movement I have written about as a scholar of modern Judaism. Marching under slogans like “Let them live as Jews, or let them leave” and “Let my people go,” political leaders, clergy, civil rights activists, labor unions and celebrities joined Jewish people in embracing the cause.

On a congressional delegation to Russia in 1979, then-Sen. Joe Biden visited Leningrad’s synagogue to meet Soviet Jewish emigration-rights activists. In December 1987, at the start of the summit between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a quarter-million Americans gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to demand freedom for Soviet Jewry. Republican Vice President George H.W. Bush and Democratic U.S. Rep. John Lewis shared the podium.

A black and white photo shows a closely packed crowd at a protest, with a large sign that says 'Their fight is our fight.'
Tens of thousands of people gather in front of the United Nations in New York in 1975 to call for more rights for Jewish people in the Soviet Union. Bettmann via Getty Images

A trickle, then a flood

The human rights campaign succeeded, but not all at once. In 1964, the USSR let only 537 Jews emigrate. In the 1970s, it let around 25,000 out on average each year, bending to the international outcry and hoping to advance détente with the West. But in the early 1980s, the Cold War chilled, and the Soviet Union closed the gates again.

With Gorbachev’s liberalizing reforms in the late 1980s, however, the USSR walked back its anti-Jewish policies, reestablished ties with Israel and opened the gates to unrestricted Jewish emigration.

Once Jews were free to leave, most chose to go. About 400,000 left in 1990 and 1991, when the USSR collapsed, and the flow continued afterward. All told, between 1970 and 2022, almost 2 million Jews emigrated – mostly to Israel, but also in the hundreds of thousands to the U.S., Canada and Germany.

A man in a suit smiles and holds a young girl in a white jacket, who waves at the camera.
Soviet refusenik Yuri Balovlenkov, who had to wait nearly a decade for an exit visa to leave the USSR, holds his daughter after arriving in the U.S. in 1987. Cynthia Johnson/The Chronicle Collection via Getty Images

Emigration has ticked upward since the Ukraine war began. Fewer than 150,000 Jewish people remain in Russia today. Another 450,000 or so who do not necessarily consider themselves Jewish but have Jewish ancestry are also eligible for immediate Israeli citizenship.

Political dance

Throughout all these decades, the Jewish Agency for Israel has been the main organization helping Russian Jews emigrate – working in Russia itself since 1989, and before then, when Israel and the USSR did not maintain diplomatic ties, from transit stations in Austria and Italy.

For most of the post-Soviet period, Israel and Russia have maintained cautiously friendly ties, and the Jewish Agency’s work has proceeded smoothly. This, and Russia’s military presence in Syria, along Israel’s northern border, have muted the Israeli response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Nevertheless, the war has stoked tensions between Moscow and Jerusalem. Increasingly isolated, Russia has also drawn closer to Iran. As a result, a new relationship between Russia and Israel may be taking shape.

An old technique, made new?

Russia’s Justice Ministry claims that the Jewish Agency’s collection of data about Russian citizens violates Russian law and denies the case is political. The next hearing is scheduled for Aug. 19, 2022.

Outlawing the Jewish Agency is unlikely to end Jewish emigration, since people are still able to leave the country. The gates are still open, for now. Passing through them may become a bit harder.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union knew that Jewish emigration symbolized something important to the West. It used that to its advantage, treating Jews as “pawns,” in the words of historian Jonathan Dekel-Chen. The Kremlin let them go or held them back as a way of telegraphing its interest or lack thereof in good relations with the West.

Now, it seems Vladimir Putin’s Russia has found the old telegraph from the Cold War attic, dusted it off, and discovered that it still works for tapping out signals today.

Shaul Kelner has received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry. He has consulted and contributed writings to research and education projects supported by the Jewish Agency for Israel.

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