There is no shortage of people willing to take a credit for the Soviet Jewry movement. Take it from me. I know this to be true. While on tour with my book, I don’t remember a single reading where someone in the audience didn’t chew me out about why their Uncle Murray wasn’t included in the story and that he – he! – was the true savior of the Soviet Jews.
But there is one person who has never really taken a bow for all she did to inspire the movement and keep it going: Avital Sharansky, wife of the imprisoned refusenik, Anatoly (now Natan), who was wrongfully accused of being a CIA agent in 1977 and sentenced to 13 years in prison and labor camps. Throughout the years of Sharansky’s imprisonment, Avital traveled the world on his behalf, leading demonstrations, meeting with world leaders, appearing at rallies next to the likes of Charlton Heston and Joan Baez. Telegenic, emotional, and possessing a particular charisma, Avital was even dubbed by Washington Post columnist, Sally Quinn, “the Israeli Audrey Hepburn.”
But in February 1986, Sharansky was freed and Avital immediately retreated from the public eye. As ubiquitous as she seemed for so many years, she suddenly went silent, fulfilling, presumably, the dream she had articulated again and again – to make a home, raise children, live a quiet life.
Until last night. After almost three decades of refusing any honors or plaudits, Avital was given the Emma Lazarus award by the American Jewish Historical Society. The evening was an opportunity to highlight her unique role in the movement and – most movingly – to hear her voice again.
Reminiscing on the golden days of Jewish American activism, two heroes of the Soviet Jewry movement took to the stage at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in its main plenary session on Monday.
Natan Sharansky, the former refusnik who is now head of the Jewish Agency for Israel and Nobel peace prize laureate Eli Wiesel, shared the stage as the Jewish community marked the 25th anniversary of the 1987 March on Washington, a seminal moment in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry and a high point in Jewish mobilization for a national cause.
The idea for the march on Washington, planned to coincide with a meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, came from both sides of the Iron Curtain, with activists on both ends sharing the vision of a massive call for opening immigration doors to Soviet Jews. Sharansky was released from the Russian prison several months before the December 6 protest, which brought more than 250,000 Jewish activists to the nation’s capital.
“We showed how strong we are as a people,” Sharansky said. “When we feel this power, as one people and one family, we can change the world.”
Last Friday, June 13, Joe Smukler died.
For anyone involved with the Soviet Jewry movement — and certainly for the refuseniks who spent years struggling to get out of the Soviet Union — the Smukler name was synonymous with the kind of dogged, unrelenting, year-in-year-out activism that defined the cause. Joe and his wife, Connie, fixtures of the Philadelphia Jewish community, became intimately involved, early on, with the Soviet Jews that they were fighting for here in the States. They saw them like family, cousins, whom they had no choice but to help with everything they had to offer.
What I remember most about Smukler from my research was the extent to which he himself became part of the Soviet Jewish story. Not content to be activists on the sidelines, he and Connie experienced all the travails of their friends in the Soviet Union personally.
The story that best illustrated this for me took place in 1975 when a rift broke out in the refusenik community between two groups, one devoted to a more aggressively political approach, and the other preferring to focus on cultivating more Jewish identity among Soviet Jews. The fight became personal and involved a dispute over the financial help refuseniks were clandestinely receiving from the West — should the money go to the Kulturniki, as they were known, or the Politiki? When the two groups refused to sit in the same room during a meeting with a delegation of United States senators visiting Moscow, the Los Angeles Times ran a report on the problems.
Enter Joe. Western activist were concerned about what this rift would mean for the solidarity of the movement, which could not afford to be distracted by these divisions. Smukler visited Moscow and brokered a sort of truce. Sitting with representatives of the two sides together in an apartment and calmly explaining the danger that this fight was causing, Smukler made everyone understand that they needed to tone things down for the good of the movement.
In that moment, and many others, he was one with them.
At Smukler’s funeral, a message from Natan Sharansky, the most famous by far of the refuseniks, was read out loud. The text is after the jump.
The Israeli Presidential Conference, Shimon Peres’s vanity international blabfest, continues today with a series of panel discussions on the woes of the global economy and the future of the Jewish people. I don’t think we’ve solved the world’s economic problems, but there have been a few bombshells dropped into the field of Jewish identity.
The most interesting was a panel on conversion, which included Rabbi Peter Knobel (Reform), Rabbi Gilah Dror (Conservative), Professor Dov Maimon (modern Orthodox think-tanker) , Israeli justice minister Yaakov Ne’eman and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky.
It was supposed to include a Haredi rabbi, Yehezkel Weinfeld, but he phoned moderator Shmuel Rosner an hour before and said he couldn’t attend. No suggestion that he was sick or called to an emergency, Rosner tells me. He just couldn’t come. At the end, during Q and A, a Haredi gent rose from the audience, one Shmuel Jakobovits (son of the late, revered British Chief Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits) and said that Rabbi Weinfeld had asked him to attend in his place. Not to sit on the dais with the Reformim and lady rabbis, mind you - just to be there.
So what happened? Maimon proposed the introduction of a new form of conversion that he called “civilizational conversion,” in which one would seek membership in the religious community of the Jewish people, but without necessarily committing oneself to observe the Orthodox commandments, as Orthodox conversion now requires. This sort of reframed the discussion. He had few details — it’s apparently still an idea in infancy — but we’re going to hear more about it in months to come, you betcha.