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August 26, 2016 / 22 Av, 5776

Posts Tagged ‘jewry’

The Avenger Of Ukrainian Jewry

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

The trial of Sholom Schwartzbard for the murder of General Simon Petlura, which began on October 18, 1927, is one of the most famous trials you probably never heard of. The trial, among the most sensational in French history, is comparable to the O.J. Simpson trial here in America in terms of the raw emotion it engendered and the broad international interest it provoked, as all of France focused obsessively upon the trial and the international media went wild.

Atypical of its era in that Jewish sensitivities were respected, Jewish interests ruled the day, and Jewish blood was avenged, the trial stands as the first time in world history that the victimization of a national group was acknowledged in a court of law.

Born in a Bessarabian shtetl in 1886 to a chassidic family – ironically, as he often liked to point out, on Shabbat Nachamu (the Sabbath of Comforting), Schwartzbard was a brilliant Talmudist before he abandoned the piety of his youth and became a passionate socialist. Nonetheless, particularly due to his love and respect for his father, Itse, he struggled to reconcile tradition and revolution and maintained a lifelong loyalty to his faith and his people, which led inexorably to the controversial act that ultimately made him famous.

Schwartzbard was jailed by the Russian Tsarist government for “provoking” the Ukrainian pogroms in 1905. Upon his parole he moved around through Austria-Hungary before settling in Paris, where he continued his trade as a watchmaker. A volunteer in the French Foreign Legion during World War I, he suffered a near-fatal wound that left him the use of only one hand and was awarded the Croix de Guerre, France’s greatest military honor.

After the war he went to Odessa, where he organized cooperatives and education programs, including Jewish religious initiatives for children; volunteered to treat wounded Jews who had survived the Ukrainian pogroms; and personally adopted one such child-survivor.

* * * * *

A renowned Ukrainian hero, Simon Petlura was a nationalist leader who, as head of the Directorate of the Ukrainian National Republic, led a Ukrainian separatist movement that opposed both the Tsarist and Leninist regimes, and helmed the provisional Ukrainian government after the Ukrainian puppet state set up by the Germans fell in November 1918.

The Ukrainian state had promised Jews full equality and autonomy; indeed, Arnold Margolin, a Jewish minister in Petlura’s government, declared in May 1919 that the Ukrainian government had given Jews more rights than they enjoyed under any other European government.

However, these fine declarations did not seem to even minimally interfere with the Ukrainian murder of Jews, as large-scale pogroms continued to be perpetrated on Ukrainian territory throughout Petlura’s term as head of state.Front-Page-052016-Ticket

During their retreat before the Red Army in the winter of 1919, Petlura’s units killed more than 50,000 Jews, including fifteen members of Sholom Schwartzbard’s family. Schwartzbard witnessed the massacres of his people while fighting with the Bolshevik forces that ultimately succeeded in ousting Petlura.

Petlura, much as Schwartzbard himself, remains an ambiguous and controversial historical figure. Some historians and commentators still argue that he never demonstrated any personal anti-Semitism; in fact, they allege that he had actively sought to halt anti-Jewish violence on numerous occasions, even introducing capital punishment for perpetrators of pogroms.

Some well-known Jews defended Petlura, including the writer Israel Zangwill, who blamed the pogroms on general “rampant anarchy.” Remarkably, another Petlura defender was Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the father of Revisionist Zionism, who signed an agreement with Petlura’s representative in Prague, Maxim Slavinsky, regarding the formation of a Jewish brigade that was to accompany Petlura’s forces on an expected invasion of Ukraine and protect the Jewish population from pogroms. Jabotinsky’s “pact with the devil” was severely criticized by most Zionist groups and, though the agreement never did materialize, he stood by it and claimed to be proud of it.

Saul Jay Singer

Majority of American Jews are Intermarried

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

NEW YORK (JTA) — First the good news: There are a lot more Jews in America than you may have thought — an estimated 6.8 million, according to a new study.

Now the bad news: A growing proportion of American Jews are unlikely to raise their children Jewish or connect with Jewish institutions. The proportion of Jews who say they have no religion and are Jewish only on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture is growing rapidly, and two-thirds of them are not raising their children Jewish at all.

Overall, the intermarriage rate is at 58 percent, up from 43 percent in 1990 and 17 percent in 1970.

The data on Jewish engagement come from the Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews, a telephone survey of 3,475 Jews nationwide conducted between February and June and released on Tuesday.

The population estimate, released Monday, comes from a synthesis of existing survey data conducted by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute and the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.

While the estimate is likely to be a matter of some debate by demographers and social scientists, it is the Pew study that offers an in-depth portrait that may influence Jewish policymaking for years to come.

Among the more notable findings of the Pew survey:

* Thirty-two percent of Jews born after 1980 — the so-called millennial generation — identify as Jews of no religion, compared to 19 percent of baby boomers and just 7 percent of Jews born before 1927. Overall, 22 percent of U.S. Jews describe themselves as having no religion, meaning they are much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to be raising their children Jewish.

* The emotional attachment to Israel has held steady over the last decade, with 69 percent of respondents saying they feel attached or very attached to Israel. Forty-three percent of respondents said they had been to Israel.

* Far more respondents said having a good sense of humor was essential to their Jewish identity than observing Jewish law — 42 percent compared to 19 percent.

* Approximately one-quarter of Jews said religion is very important in their lives, compared to 56 percent among Americans generally.

Among Jewish denominations, the Reform movement remains the largest with 35 percent of respondents identifying as Reform. The second-largest group is Jews of no denomination (30 percent), followed by Conservative (18 percent) and Orthodox (10 percent).

As with other studies, the Pew study found that the Orthodox share of the American Jewish population is likely to grow because Orthodox Jews tend to be younger and have larger families than Jews generally.

In addition, while past surveys showed about half of respondents raised as Orthodox were no longer Orthodox, the Orthodox retention rate appears to be improving, with just a 17 percent falloff among 18- to 29-year-olds.

Most denominational switching among American Jews, however, remains in the direction of less traditional Judaism.

In the Pew survey, 90 percent of those who identified as Jews by religion and are raising children said they are raising them Jewish. By comparison, less than one-third of those who identified themselves as Jews of no religion are raising their kids as Jewish.

Among inmarried Jews, 96 percent are raising their children as Jews by religion (as opposed to ethnicity), compared to 45 percent among intermarried Jews.

On Jewish observance, some 70 percent of respondents to the Pew survey said they participated in a Passover seder in 2012 and 53 percent said they fasted for all or part of Yom Kippur that year. The numbers represent declines from the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey conducted by the Jewish Federations of North America, which found seder participation rates at 78 percent and Yom Kippur fasting at 60 percent.

While most of those surveyed by Pew said they felt a strong connection to Israel, and 23 percent reported having visited the Jewish state more than once, the respondents expressed significant reservations about the current Israeli government’s policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

Forty-four percent said West Bank settlement construction hurts Israel’s security interests, and only 17 percent said continued settlement construction is helpful to Israeli security. Thirty-eight percent of respondents said the Israeli government is making a sincere peace effort with the Palestinians.

Uriel Heilman

Keeping Jews Jewish

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

I recently attended the wedding of a wonderful ba’al teshuva couple whose parents are Conservative Jews. One of the honored guests was their parent’s Conservative Rabbi. Although the mesader kedushin (the officiating rabbi) was Orthodox, the Conservative rabbi was quite involved with various Halachic minutia throughout the course of the evening (…none under the hupah). Without getting into details, I have to say that I was impressed. The rabbi was very knowledgeable in Halacha and insisted that it be followed. If one did not know that he was a Conservative rabbi, one could have easily thought he was Orthodox… and not especially left wing either.

I happen to know that this rabbi came through the ranks of the Conservative movement. He was not one of those Orthodox “sellouts” who took a Conservative shul for the money. He came from a committed Conservative home and his primary Jewish education was through the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) where he was ordained. His shul is fairly large and I would guess consists mostly of non-observant (by Orthodox standards) Jews.

This got me to thinking about the origins of the Conservative movement. I fully believe that the founders’ intent was to ‘conserve’ Judaism… from the inroads of Reform that was sweeping the country in those days. Those founders wanted to produce a rabbinate that was in harmony with American values and American culture… in order to better relate to the melting pot mentality of those days.

Although the movement has since undergone changes whereby questionable theologies have become acceptable… I do not believe that was part of the original equation and did not become so until the late Mordechai Kaplan advanced his radical ideas about the nature of God and the Jewish people. Although radical views are not required in Conservative Judaism, they are now accepted or at least tolerated.

I don’t know the theology of this rabbi. But it wouldn’t surprise me if he believed in Torah MiSinai. In any case, I think one can fairly say that Conservative rabbis like the one at the wedding are observant and see themselves in many ways like kiruv professionals for their members. Not that they are able to get their members to observe Shabbos. But that they try and get them to be as observant as possible without alienating them from the shul.

Oddly enough, this is the philosophy of Lubavitch. Although their primary focus is on making as many Jews as possible religious Lubavitchers, they do things one step at a time and often do not succeed beyond merely making non observant Jews merely Lubavitivch friendly. They will say that we all fall short of perfection and that we should all try and improve in our observances… even those of us who are shomer Shabbos!

I think the Conservative rabbi sees himself and his role in the same way. I further believe that he would be overjoyed if any of his congregants become Orthodox via Chabad or any other Orthodox Kiruv group. Indeed he was effusive with praise for this young couple who were going to spend their first year of marriage in Israel with the husband spending time in a yeshiva.

I realize of course that not all Conservative rabbis are like this. But I’ll bet that there are a lot more like him – that actually live up to the original Conservative credo of trying to conserve Judaism.

I bring all this up in light of an editorial by Forward editor Jane Eisner. She too was critical of her own columnist Jay Michaelson for considering Haredism to be the single biggest existential threat to “fabric of American Jewish Life”…. And castigated him for demonizing and alienating one group when there is another threat that is “just as potent.”

Her point was that the many unaffiliated Jews are increasingly opting out of their Judaism. From the Forward article:

As the UJA-Federation of New York’s recent population survey highlighted, the growth of the “unaffiliated” has equally profound and worrying consequences for the future of the Jewish community. Compounded by the shrinking middle — that mixture of Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews who are, with some notable exceptions, throwing a party fewer and fewer people want to attend — we have a community that is ceding ground to an extreme form of Judaism largely because many of its members don’t care enough to maintain any other form.

The statistics that Ms. Eisner quotes in her editorial are illustrative of the problem. The trend is towards the growth of Orthodoxy and the shrinkage of everything else. It isn’t too hard to predict the future of heterodox movements.

But instead of being triumphalist, I think we Orthodox Jews are better served by reflecting on this massive attrition by so many Jews from Judaism… and seeing if there is anything we can do about it. To my mind it is tragic that we are losing so many Jews to an assimilation that sees any and all religion as archaic and useless.

It is all too easy to write everybody else off and say, “That’s life”! We can’t really do anything about it. Let us therefore concentrate on ourselves – to make our lives holier and re-build Judaism’s numbers by our own propagation. Thankfully there is Chabad and other Kiruv organizations that do not feel this way. But the people they reach are all a drop in the bucket compared to attrition numbers.

Which brings me back to the Conservative rabbi I mentioned at the beginning of this article. The fact is that if there was some way we could work together with people like him, I think our attempts at outreach would be far more successful. Altruistic Conservative rabbis like him I am sure would be eager to do that.

I am convinced that any and every non-observant Jew that becomes Orthodox would be a success story for him – if he were in some way involved with an Orthodox Kiruv movement – even it were nothing more than steering teenagers to NCSY and through them they became observant, that would be considered a victory for him.

I’m not saying that it will be easy to accomplish that. I realize there are restrictions involved because of issues having to do with validation. These issues are real. Virtually all the Gedolim of previous generations, including Rav Soloveitchik, forbade any religious collaboration with heterodox rabbis for fear of giving them tacit recognition.

One may argue that conditions are different now and since these movements are in decline there is little danger of our legitimizing them in any meaningful way. And that the benefit of reaching out far outweighs a now archaic public policy. But it is way below my pay grade to over-rule these giants.

That those on the left wing of Orthodoxy have done so – even if for these very reasons does not make it right. Besides – joint public prayer ceremonies and the like do not really do all that much for outreach anyway, in my view. There is a difference between working with them behind the scenes – and standing in a public arena and thereby by inference endorsing them.

I believe that we should work with them. Those who are sincere about mitzvah observance, like this rabbi, desire to keep Jews – Jewish. And they now realize that their past leniencies like permitting their members to drive to shul on Shabbos was a big mistake. And exactly counterproductive to their goals of preserving Judaism. They have instead created a path out of it… and their movement is now in serious decline.

I don’t know how to co-operate with them in ways that will not violate the will of the rabbinic giants of the last generation. But I’m sure it can be done. The devil – I know – is in the details. But at this point in time – it is worth taking the time to figure it out. There is too much at stake and the time is short. Before long there will be no Conservative Jews to work with. If not now, when?

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah.

Harry Maryles

Another Defender of the Haredi Status Quo Clucks His Tongue

Monday, May 27th, 2013

Eytan Kobre has got be one of the most annoying defenders of the Haredi status quo in Israel on the face of the planet! He rarely fails to upset my sensibilities. His holier-than-thou attitude goes well beyond polite discourse in disagreement about public policy. It borders on the hateful! And he did it again in his weekly Mishpacha Magazinecolumn. Note in particular the three bullet points where he manages to disparage Jewish Action Magazine, an Orthodox blogger, Rabbi Dov Lipman and the “talmidei hachmim” and “ehrilche yidden” (his words) who hosted Rabbi Lipman on his recent visit to America.

What makes Mr. Kobre particularly annoying is the way he presents himself. He is an attorney. His talented writing skills indicate a fine secular education… attributes that would describe many moderate Haredim. And as most people know, I am a big fan of moderate Haredim – even though I am not Haredi myself.

The problem with Mr. Kobre is that he is anything but moderate. Despite his education and skills he writes like an extremist zealot.

The funny thing is that he does not really say anything about the Haredi belief system that is all that outrageous. But he uses those beliefs to disparage those who dare to challenge Haredi polices that in the view of many need some very serious tweaking at the least. He not only says that such challenges are evil, he implies that those that give a platform to people who advocate them are at best a bunch of morons. Of course, he doesn’t use the word moron. But he may as well have.

The subject of his most recent column is the draft of Haredim in Israel. His point is that if one were to truly understand the protective value of those who learn Torah they would know that all the miracles evident in every war were a direct result of the zechus (merit) of those who were learning Torah. He asks in the most hyperbolic of tones:

Now, as this fragile little country, whose 65-year history has been a string of wondrous miracles, faces the apocalypse being feverishly readied by the lunatic of Tehran, now is the opportune time to drag talmidei hachamim from their shtenders with brute physical or fiscal force, in a grand social reengineering scheme?
… is this the moment to allow the squelching of the amal haTorah that stands between us and a violent vomiting out of the inhabitants of this most spiritually sensitive of lands?

Brute physical force? Really, Mr. Kobre? What have you been drinking? No one in the government has suggested using brute physical force on Haredi Jews.

The fact is that no religious Jew would deny the merit that Torah study contributes towards the country’s security. But it is the height of folly to believe that hishtadlus via a strong military is therefore unnecessary. I’m sure that even Mr. Kobre understands that. But nowhere in the article does he make mention of it. The truth is that there has to be both. The only question is – what should the numbers look like.

What percentage of able bodied men who are dedicated to Torah study should be exempt from military service? In my view that has yet to be determined. I’m personally not sure what the percentage should be. But one thing I am fairly certain of is that they ought to not look like they do now. There is no way that every single Haredi Jew should be exempt from military service by simply registering in a yeshiva.

Mr Kobre might accuse me of hutzpah right about now. How, he might ask, do I know what the numbers should be? Am I a gadol (great Torah leader)? Only gedolim should decide these things, he might say. And right now they have determined that no Haredi Yeshiva student should serve, no matter what his age or status in Torah study.

True, I am not a gadol. But I have to ask, how many yeshiva students were there in 1948? So many miracles occurred in Israel’s war of independence that one would have to be the biggest cynic in the world to not see the hand of God in that victory.

I am absolutely convinced that Torah study in the yeshivos at that time protected Israel and contributed to the miracles. But the numbers of lomdei Torah then were substantially lower than they are now. In fact they were minuscule compared to what they are now. And yet Mr. Kobre would have us believe it is all about the numbers!

One might argue that you never know where we are holding as a nation with respect to deserving miracles. So the more people that are studying Torah the better chance we have for survival. I find this attitude to be a terrible way to look at God’s beneficence towards us. I would posit that considering the miracles that took place in 1948 – God is not interested in sheer numbers.

Yes, he wants us all to fulfill the mitzvah of Torah study. But he also wants histhadlus – to do what we can physically to achieve success. Hazal tell us – ein somchin al hanes – do not rely on miracles. The way to best succeed in winning a war is to have the best physical army we can field – in addition to the spiritual army that studies Torah full time.

The bottom line for me is that there ought to be divinity student exemptions. But they ought to be applied to the best and brightest among us – and only the highly motivated of those! The rest ought to be willing to serve in some capacity. This does not mean able bodied Haredim must give up Torah study entirely. One can continue to study Torah by being koveiah itim – establishing a fixed time for it… even while serving one’s country. Furthermore all conscripts can go back to the beis hamedrash once their military service is completed after two or three years.

There are those who argue that once you are out of the beis medrash – you will never return to it. Well… so be it. All that means is that they were only there in the first place for sociological reasons. Real masmidim will want to return… and they are probably the ones who get draft exemptions anyway.

But perhaps we should take Mr. Kobre at face value. He believes that we should maximize Torah study at such a dangerous time for Israel. If that is really the way he feels, then he ought to give up his law practice here in the United States, move to Israel, and “pitch in.” I’m sure if he went to the Mir and asked if he could join the full time lomdei Torah there, he would be accepted. He is after all a pretty bright fellow and his learning would no doubt contribute to his goal of relying on Nissim (miracles). How in good conscience can he continue stay here and work for a living?

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah.

Harry Maryles

The Liberator: Ronald Reagan and Soviet Jewry

Wednesday, March 21st, 2007

Jews have had a long and at times complicated relationship with the men who have served as presidents of the United States. Leaders like Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman cannot be summed up in a paragraph, especially when examining their thoughts and actions toward Jews.

Among our more recent chief executives, examination of Ronald Reagan’s relationship with the Jewish people has historically focused on the 40th president as an unflagging friend of the state of Israel. “He was unshakable,” stated Shimon Peres in a typical assessment, “a staunch supporter.”

Reagan had a special affinity for Jews, which stemmed from a multitude of factors – his personal ecumenical nature; his Catholic father’s impressive intolerance of religious, racial, and ethnic discrimination; his Protestant mother’s instruction that her son “love thy neighbor.” He learned these virtues at a young age.

As Bill Clark, a devout Catholic and Reagan’s closest aide, put it: “He was very tolerant of other faiths, especially the Jewish faith.”

One of the most instructive insights into Reagan’s connection with Jews relates to the man’s Cold War experience – what he saw as literally the fight of the 20th century.

Nothing animated Reagan more than his goal of undermining atheistic Soviet communism and thereby liberating millions. And it was the Jews behind the Iron Curtain who were a central part of that calling.

Perhaps the earliest documentable example of Reagan learning about the suffering of Russian Jews was an incident from November 11, 1928 at Reagan’s boyhood church in Dixon, Illinois. That evening, the First Christian Church on South Hennepin Avenue hosted a Russian Jew named B.E. Kertchman, whose speech offered a modern history of Jews and their relations with other people and nations. Kertchman was recruited by the enthusiastic church pastor, Ben Cleaver, who was like a second father to the young Ronald Reagan, and by Nelle Reagan, Ronald’s mother.

Clearly, young Reagan was not ignorant of the plight of the Jewish people.

That appreciation by Reagan would only intensify, particularly once he left his home state of Illinois for a movie career. That career brought him into politics, especially through his position as president of the Screen Actors Guild. While historians have rightly connected Reagan’s work at SAG with the start of his fight against communism, they have somehow managed to miss his first public confrontation with the USSR in this period.

As president of SAG, Reagan spoke on behalf of the so-called DPs – Displaced Persons. DPs initially were survivors of World War II fascism, primarily Jews. Once the war ended, the list of DP-designated peoples widened to include 1.5 million individuals escaping Soviet-occupied areas in Eastern Europe, though they still included numerous Jews who longed for the creation of a homeland in Palestine.

The DPs were held in camps in Britain, Canada, Belgium, and Latin America, at a large cost to the United States – at least $100 million annually. Soviet officials outrageously claimed that the U.S. was holding the DPs as a source of semi-slave labor – a charge dismissed by Eleanor Roosevelt as “utterly untrue.”

A bill was introducedin Congress by William G. Stratton, a Republican congressman from Reagan’s home state, to permit entry of 400,000 DPs into the U.S. Reagan fought for the bill, which faced stiff opposition in Congress. He did not shy from dramatic rhetoric, agreeing with UN official Herbert H. Lehman: “Apparently there are some people who would rather bury the Stratton bill in red tape and thus bury the DPs in a mass grave. They would be burying Protestants, Catholics, and Jews alike.”

On May 7, 1947, Reagan, through the New York-based Citizens Committee on Displaced Persons, released a statement urging passage of the Stratton bill. This was probably his first open campaign against Moscow, and it involved defending people of all faiths, including Jews.

Reagan in the White House

As Reagan ultimately made his way to the White House, these issues came with him. They were close to his heart. As a citizen, Reagan had been painfully aware of the Soviet war on religion. The Soviet leadership was an equal opportunity discriminator, attacking religious believers of all stripes. In fact, communists everywhere assaulted religious believers: in the USSR, Romania, China, Cambodia, Cuba, etc.

As president, Reagan noted that Jews in particular had suffered cruel persecution under communism. Even the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, said Reagan, had used threats and harassment to force “virtually every Nicaraguan Jew to flee [the] country.”

Reagan would do his part for those Jews. In fact, he always kept on hand an updated list of people in prison in the Soviet Union, which he carried with him in his coat pocket. Each time Secretary of State George Shultz prepared to travel to the USSR, Reagan pulled out the list and directed, “I want you to raise these names with the Soviets.” Sure enough, Shultz would raise them and one by one they would be released from the gulag and often even allowed to leave the country. Many of them, of course, were Jews – individuals like Anatoly “Natan” Sharansky.

Reagan did not merely act through intermediaries. He personally took his request to the highest level, as was evident to General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev soon after he pulled up to the White House on the morning of December 8, 1987, to commence the third summit in three years between the United States and the USSR.

After the welcoming ceremony, he and Reagan and their interpreters went to the Oval Office. Reagan seized on the one-on-one session to hammer the issue of Soviet human-rights violations. While he said he was pleased that some Soviet Jews were being permitted to leave the Soviet Union, he felt more should be allowed.

As he had at Geneva and Reykjavik, Gorbachev bristled when he heard the translation of Reagan’s remarks on human rights. Reagan recalled the general secretary’s sensitive reaction: “He replied that he was not the accused standing in a dock and I was not a prosecutor, and that I had no right to bring up domestic matters of the Soviet Union.”

Gorbachev was always perturbed by Reagan’s insistence on open emigration for Soviet Jews. Still angry a decade later, Gorbachev recalled in his memoirs how he snapped at Reagan: “Mr. President like you, I represent a great country and therefore expect our dialogue to be conducted on the basis of reciprocity and equality. Otherwise there simply will be no dialogue.”

Yet Reagan was confident the dialogue would continue, as it did into the next summit, six months later in Moscow.

The two leaders held their first one-on-one at 3:26 p.m., Sunday, May 29. It lasted an hour and 11 minutes. The conversation went back and forth, with Gorbachev going first. When it was Reagan’s turn, he immediately began speaking on religion in Russia. He spoke of Jews, Muslims, Protestants, and Ukrainian Catholics, and insisted all have a right to attend the place of worship of their choice.

Gorbachev responded by claiming there was nota serious problem with religion in Russia. The debate continued. Reagan then made a bold move, which was quite revealing of his priorities: he linked Gorbachev’s economic demands to his – Reagan’s – personal goal of religious freedom in the USSR.

“Gorbachev again expressed his desire for increased U.S.-Soviet trade,” recalled Reagan later. “I was ready for him.”

Reagan told Gorbachev: “One reason we have trouble increasing trade with your country,” he added, is “because of Soviet human rights abuses.”

Reagan singled out religious freedom: “I’m not trying to tell you how to run your country,” he said, “but I realize you are probably concerned that if you allow too many of the Jews who want to emigrate from the Soviet Union to leave, there’ll be a ‘brain drain,’ a loss of skilled people from your economy. But did it ever occur to you, on this whole question of human rights, that maybe if the Jews were permitted to worship as they want to and teach their children the Hebrew language, that maybe they wouldn’t want to leave the Soviet Union?…  [P]erhaps if they were allowed to reopen their synagogues and worship as they want to, they might decide that they wouldn’t have to leave and there wouldn’t be that problem of a brain drain.”

As to the effect of this on Gorbachev, Reagan later recorded: “Whether my words had any impact or not I don’t know, but after that the Soviet government began allowing more churches and synagogues to reopen.”

The Soviet government did indeed do so, but not without more persistent complaining about Reagan’s concern for Jews.

Typical was an October 6, 1988 statement from the Moscow Domestic Service, which accused Reagan of turning to the issue of Jewish emigration “whenever it has been necessary to open another anti-Soviet, anti-socialist campaign.” The Soviets were annoyed because Reagan once again had the audacity to decry the continued persecution of Soviet Jews.

“President Reagan said in his speech that there are tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Jews in the USSR who long for exit visas and are not getting them,” complained Moscow. “Who has felt this need to appeal to figures that have clearly been dreamed up and plucked from thin air and wrap them in tendentious rhetoric?”

“Why,” the Moscow Domestic Service went on, “is he once again trying to whip up passions and blow up nonexistent problems?” In the next line, Moscow provided an answer: “Perhaps this is to the advantage of the Zionist circles which are trying to distract the attention of the world public in this way from the genocide that they themselves are perpetrating against the Palestinians in the Israeli occupied Arab lands? It’s no accident that in the same speech, President Reagan allowed himself an outburst against the United Nations, which in his opinion ought to rescind Resolution 3379, passed in 1975, which describes Zionism as a form of racial discrimination.”

This, judged the Moscow Domestic Service, was another Reagan outrage, as there was “incontrovertible proof” that Zionism was both a form of racism and genocide. This October 1988 statement from the Moscow Domestic Service is a healthy reminder – “incontrovertible proof” – of what the Jewish people and the world once faced in Moscow only two decades ago, and even amid all the promise of Gorbachev’s glasnost: a group of shameless liars.

Victory – and Freedom

No matter, because in the end Ronald Reagan succeeded: the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the USSR imploded in 1991, and the Cold War was over. Liberation for countless millions was achieved without the horrible nuclear exchange we had all feared.

And Soviet Jews likewise were liberated, as hundreds of thousands subsequently now had the right at long last to leave, and did so, streaming into Israel in the largest exodus sice the founding of the modern Israeli state.

Reagan’s mind, which by the mid-1990’s was being consumed by another evil – the horrific disease called Alzheimer’s – mercifully lasted just long enough to observe the tremendous accomplishment.

By 1997, however, the former president’s mind was going fast. The White House, the Soviets, and all of those who suffered behind the Iron Curtain were mere flickering memories. And yet, in a poignant moment that summer, Ronald Reagan got a meaningful thank you.

As the former president strolled through Armand Hammer Park near his Bel Air home, he was approached by a tourist named Yakob Ravin and his twelve-year-old grandson, both Jewish Ukrainian émigrés living near Toledo, Ohio. They cheered Reagan as he drew near and briefly spoke to the retired president, who posed for a picture with the boy, which his grandfather proudly snapped.

“Mr. President,” said Ravin, “thank you for everything you did for the Jewish people, for Soviet people, to destroy the communist empire.” The slightly confused 86-year-old Reagan paused and responded: “Yes, that is my job.”

That was his job. And many longed to thank him. Most never did, at least not to his face. Instead, many came out in the immediate days after June 5, 2004, when Reagan died at the age of 93.

A pair of AP reporters interviewed Rabbi Velvel Tsikman – one of the upwards of 50,000 Soviet bloc immigrants living today in the greater Los Angeles area – who remembered a time when the only link he had to his Jewish heritage was a line in his Soviet passport that read: “Nationality: Jewish.”

In the USSR, Rabbi Tsikman was forbidden to wear a yarmulke. Now, he leads a vibrant Russian Jewish community in West Hollywood from his office at the Chabad Russian Jewish Community Center. And he credits his spiritual freedom to Ronald Reagan.

“[Reagan’s] doctrine,” said Rabbi Tsikman, “what he did, was very helpful to destroy the monster that was there in Europe.”

At the retirement center where he works, Rabbi Tsikman commented on the elderly people there who joined him late in life by leaving the USSR. “They are living in a paradise here,” he said. “It’s like God is paying them for a terrible life in Russia. These people were sitting home waiting to die. When they came here, they came alive again.”

If Ronald Reagan were alive today, he would be thrilled to meet them. He and they shared a long road together, all the way back to when he was an actor championing the DPs and, and even before then, when their ancestors, people like B.E. Kertchman, met people like Nelle Reagan and Ben Cleaver.

The battle against Soviet communism was present at the start and finish of Ronald Reagan̓s life, as was his kinship with the Jewish people.

Dr. Paul Kengor

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/front-page/the-liberator-ronald-reagan-and-soviet-jewry/2007/03/21/

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