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Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union

UNION OF COUNCILS FOR JEWS IN THE FORMER SOVIET UNION (UCSJ; formerly Union of Councils for Soviet Jews).

Voice of the Refuseniks (1970–1999)

In the mid-1960s, with the sense that American Jews had not done enough to rescue Europe's Jews during the Holocaust still fresh in their minds, a small number of American Jewish activists concluded "Never Again": that the needs for rescue from persecution and quarantine of the Soviet Union's 4-plus million Jews was receiving inadequate attention.

Following the inspiration of Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, activists in half a dozen cities organized local "action" committees and, in 1970, they established the umbrella organization, Union of Councils for Soviet Jews (UCSJ). In the 1970s, UCSJ established itself as the principal grassroots and activist component of the Soviet Jewry Movement. Prior to the internet, it pioneered a number of innovations to assure an integrated campaign. It purchased fax machines for each local council to receive their information and to compile and distribute to them a weekly packet of information about new developments in the former Soviet Union and provide up-to-date UCSJ policies and projects.

Virtually every Refusenik and Prisoner of Conscience was "adopted" by at least one council which, in turn, developed and shared official biographies and coordinated their respective cases. The councils provided regular information to local media and officials and to their Congressional delegations. UCSJ organized a Congressional Vigil, headed by Congressmen John Porter (R-Ill) and Tom Lantos (D-Cal); assisted by UCSJ, congressmen placed profiles of Refuseniks and Prisoners into the Congressional Record every Friday for nearly two decades.

UCSJ's greatest political triumph came in the early 1970s with its successful advocacy in the Congress of the interventionist Jackson-Vanik Amendment, sponsored by Senator Henry Jackson and Congressman Charles Vanik, to U.S. Trade legislation, which made "most favored nation" trade concessions contingent on the free emigration of the Jews – this over the vehement opposition of the Nixon-Kissinger administration and the Israeli and American Jewish leadership.

By the late 1980s, the organization had swelled to nearly 40 local councils with a combined membership of 50,000, matching the approximately 50,000 unaffiliated members and supporters of the national organization. In its campaigning, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, UCSJ briefed thousands of visitors not only about who to visit among the Refuseniks but on how to collect vital, strategic information from their leaders. They supplemented these reports with weekly telephone calls to activists across the Soviet Union. Refuseniks especially valued the leadership of UCSJ's 10-year president, Pamela B. Cohen of Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry. When she made an unannounced two-week visit in 1987, word of her arrival spread across the 11 time zones and hundreds of Refusenik leaders traveled to Moscow and Leningrad to brief her on conditions in their communities.

Although it was largely unknown to the million-plus American Jews who responded to the rallying cry, "Let My People Go," there existed a serious, principled political and operational divide between the Israel-dominated "Establishment" wing of the Soviet Jewry movement and the grassroots activists. The difference often produced a measure of vitriol during the Refusenik era but, since the fall of the Iron Curtain, it is seen by UCSJ as affecting far more dangerous stakes. Among the questions that divided the "establishment" from the activists were "Who spoke for Soviet Jews? How to position the struggle? Was the ultimate goal of the movement "aliyah" or "freedom," including the freedom not to choose to live in Israel, and to what extent was the movement devoted to human rights as well as aliyah.

The Jewish Establishment conceded to the State of Israel the international voice of Soviet Jewry. They argued that only Israel was prepared to accept all Soviet Jews, and the demographics of a proportionately rising Arab population in greater Israel was a time bomb that massive immigration from the U.S.S.R. could help defuse. What's more, the Soviets were prepared at least to consider granting Jewish emigration if it were seen as repatriation to homeland rather than a human rights category – freedom of movement. Hence, it was seen as the duty of every departing Soviet Jew to make aliyah.

Further, as the movement began, in the post-1967 era, Moscow had severed its diplomatic relations with Israel, and Israel's vital interests were at stake in promoting a modus vivendi with the then powerful Soviet Union. Israel had a long agenda with the Soviet Union; Soviet Jews were only one part of that agenda, which also included trade, military security, and Soviet diplomatic support of its hostile neighbors. Accordingly, Israel was convinced that the only effective approach to the Soviets was what they termed "quiet diplomacy." It therefore rejected grassroots activism aimed at "making noise" and opposing antisemitism and the broad violations of human rights – concerns that the 35-nation Helsinki Process, and UCSJ, routinely addressed.

But to the activists in the U.S.S.R. and UCSJ alike, "quiet diplomacy" and the aliyah-only campaign smacked of paternalism and violated the Russian Jews' internationally guaranteed "freedom of choice and movement." It also unacceptably isolated the targeted Jews from their equally oppressed majority, their non-Jewish neighbors, and especially from the politically courageous dissident Helsinki monitors led by such international luminaries as Andrei Sakharov, Yuri Orlov, and Anatoly (Nathan) Sharansky. In contrast, UCSJ and the activist Refuseniks, including Sharansky and Leonid Stonov, viewed the activists as full, non-paternalistic partners – with UCSJ as the Western "voice of the Refuseniks."

Antisemitism and Human Rights Monitor

In the late 1990s, with grassroots antisemitism rising dangerously in Russia (Ukraine and Belarus as well), UCSJ established a nationwide antisemitism and xenophobia monitoring network – the only one of its kind. And it forged a full working coalition with the prestigious Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights coalition still opposed by the Jewish Establishment. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin has made many excellent speeches inveighing against antisemitism and xenophobia in Russia, as well as terrorism, antisemitism remains the principal language of extremist violence and propaganda, from the 50,000 neo-Nazi skinheads, to the exclusionary Russian Orthodox Church, to the nationalistic and fascist political factions. By 2005 these factions constituted one-third of the deputies in the Duma (parliament); strongly antisemitic attitudes garnered upward of 50% approval in public opinion sampling. Putin has tolerated a fully corrupt and dysfunctional rule of law infrastructure incapable of providing protection to citizens let alone economic stability, has systematically outlawed political opposition parties, and has imposed virtual control of the major media.

In sum, with the collapse of the Iron Curtain, half a million Soviet Jews "dropped out" in Vienna and came to America; and more than a million made aliyah. In the early 21st century, with the Russian Jewish leadership dependent upon President Putin's good intentions, Russia still remained an authoritarian country that hand picked its presidents. With the pool of future contenders so contaminated, Jews and democracy itself are in jeopardy. With Jews also challenged and targeted in Ukraine and Belarus, advocacy and the monitoring of antisemitism and xenophobia in the FSU remained UCSJ's unique mandate as 2005 drew to a close.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.