The Kremlin and the Jews: Discrimination by Nationality

Last December 10, the Soviet Union celebrated International Human Rights Day. The Communist Party newspaper Provda marked the event with a front-page article proudly stating that human rights in the country were "not only proclaimed, but also safely guaranteed." The most important of these rights, the article asserted, were those to employment, vacations, health care, housing, and education.

Noticeably absent from the article, however, was any mention of certain rights considered fundamental by most human rights activists in this country--freedom of religion, protection from discrimination, and the liberty to study one's own national language. Although all of these rights are "guaranteed" by the Soviet Constitution, a Jewish scientist observed that "in reality, we have these rights only if we do not try to exercise them."

For the Soviet Union's three million Jews this discrepancy between rhetoric and reality is a matter of survival.

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In 1970, Yosif Begun, a Soviet Jewish mathematician, applied to emigrate to Israel. Although he had worked in the field for 20 consecutive years, he was forced to resign his position at the ministry of communications. Despite his qualifications and the demand for people with his level of training--roughly the equivalent of a master's degree--none of the other institutions in his field would hire him. Nor could he find any other kind of employment with the state. He was warned by the K.G.B. that Soviet citizens have an obligation to work, and that if he failed to find a job, they would arrest him for being a "parasite."


Begun eventually found a job--pushing a wheelbarrow at a construction site. But nevertheless, one day a K.G.B. agent came to his home, arrested and imprisoned him without filing charges. Although he was released a week later, when he returned to work he learned he had been fired. The reason: he had skipped a week of work. Begun explained that he had been in jail, but his supervisor demanded written confirmation. The administration at the jailhouse refused to write such a note, saying that there was no evidence to support Begun's claim. It was back to square one.

Newly unemployed, Begun received another warning from the K.G.B. In an effort to avoid arrest, he declared as his work and means of income the Hebrew lessons he had been teaching. (Soviet law allows citizens to earn money through private instruction as long as they register the lessons with the appropriate revenue office for tax purposes.)

The revenue office administrator replied with a letter explaining why the Hebrew lessons could not be registered: the language was not approved by the ministry of education, and furthermore, Begun was not licensed to teach it. "If there were a need for the language to be taught," the letter continued, "it would be taught. Since it isn't taught, there is no need." Begun, the state decided, was not engaged in "socially useful work."

After doing his own research, Begun discovered that Hebrew was, in fact, approved by the ministry of education, since it was taught in a classical language program (from which Jews were excluded) at three universities Furthermore, according to Soviet law people who taught anything privately required no license whatsoever. But this research failed to impress the K.G.B. Began was arrested, tried, and sentenced to two years imprisonment in Magadan, a Siberian town not far from Alaska. Now, twelve years after he applied to emigrate, he lives in a small town near Moscow and earns his living shovelling coal, a skill be acquired in Magadan.

In 1979, Simcon Kats, a senior researcher at the Institute of Physics of the Earth in Moscow, applied with his family to emigrate to Israel, where relatives of his already lived.

Among the mynad forms and documents he had to submit was a simple letter from his place of work, certifying that he did, in fact, work there. When Kats requested this letter, the assistant director of the institute told him to resign first, warning that "bad things would happen" if he didn't. Knowing that it would take many months before his application was even considered. Kats refused to resign. After three weeks, the assistant director finally gave Kats the letter, telling him. "You'll be sorry." Two months later, as Kats was walking home one day at noon, three clean-cut young men jumped him only thirty meters from a police station. He suffered a concussion, fractured skull and broken nose. To date, the police have found no suspects.

The scientific council at Kat's institute proceeded to strip him of his position and his Doctor of Sciences degree (roughly equivalent to a Ph.D.) by adopting a resolution denouncing him as a traitor and citing his application to emigrate to "a country hostile to the Soviet Union and to our Arab friends. "Kats wrote a letter of protest to the president of the Academy of Sciences, quoting the provision of the Helsinki Final Act, signed by Leonid Brezhnev in 1975, which stipulates that a person who has applied to emigrate shall not be subject to changes in rights or duties. The Academy of Sciences responded to Kat's letter by pressuring the Physics of the Earth Institute to annul the resolution on the grounds that it was inappropriate for a research center to denounce a scientist for political reasons. Although Kats continues to work at the institute, he has been forbidden to collaborate with other scientists, his articles are being withheld from publication, and the seminars he had been scheduled to lead have been cancelled. He now fears that the scientific council may once again adopt a resolution discrediting him. This time it should be a scientific one citing his recent lack of contribution to his field.

In January, 1982, after 35 months of wasting, his application to emigrate was refused.

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The difficulties for Jews who wish to emigrate have been compounded recently by a complication of the application procedures. In addition, the government now intercepts virtually all invitations sent from Israel--a document required of all emigration applicants. The invitations must come from Israel because Jews are permitted to emigrate only by virtue of the fact that the Soviet government treats them as a national group whose homeland lies outside of Soviet borders.

It is not only the Jews who wish to emigrate who are harrassed Many Soviet Jews recount incidents of K G B agents not only raiding secret Hebrew classes, threatening the teachers with imprisonment and interrogating children of kindergarten age. In October, on the eve of the Rosh Hashannah. Soviet police forcibly disperse the thousands of Jews who had gathered outside the synagogue on Archipove street to sing and dance. In the last year there has been a dramatic increase in the number of anti-Semitic books and articles published and therefore sanctioned by the government. Universities have begun to give separate and significantly more difficult entrance examinations to Jewish candidates, and in the last few years, fewer and fewer Jewish students have been accepted. As the overall situation worsens, an increasing number of Jews has come to realize that the Soviet Union holds no future for them. During the last two yeas, however, the number of Jews permitted to emigrate has fallen dramatically, from more than 50,000 in 1979 to fewer than 10,000 in 1981.

The apparent cooperation among the police, K.G.B., emigration officials, and the directors of universities and scientific institutes suggests that the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union today is not merely the sum of anti-Semitic acts committed by individual functionaries but also a deliberate policy directed from the Kremlin.

This policy may in part be motivated by a perception among the leadership, reflected in the Soviet press, that the Jews are perceived as a foreign tribe, whose national homeland. Israel, not only lies outside of Soviet borders, but also is closely allied with the United States, the epitome of capitalism and thus an ideological enemy.

Given the Soviet Preoccupation with centralized government and control, it is also possible that the leadership fears that any revival of Jewist-cultural or religious activities may infect the other nationalities living in the Soviet Union with a renewed sense of national (as opposed to Soviet) identity. This consideration grows more important with time, since the total population of minority nationalities is about to surpass that of the ethnic Russians, who dominate the central government. Whatever the motivation, the fact remains that current Soviet policy has largely suppressed and threatens to eliminate the religious, linguistic and cultural heritage of its Jewish citizens--everything, in effect, except the label in their passports.