Nov 13, 2012
What Wiesel, Sharansky Forgot
Selective memory? Wiesel & Sharansky chat at the Federation's 2012 Assembly. Photo: Robert A. Cumins / JFNA

Secular Jewish icons Eli Wiesel and Natan Sharansky reminisced about their involvement with Soviet Jewry, but omitted a major factor: the Rebbe.

By Rabbi David Eliezrie, Times of Israel

An historic conversation took place at the GA, the Jewish Federation Conference in Baltimore on Monday. Two Jewish icons, Eli Wiesel and Natan Sharansky reminisced about their involvement in the Soviet Jewry movement. The dialogue was in honor of the 25th anniversary of the historic march on Washington in which a quarter million Jews gathered in the last big outpouring of Jewish solidarity with Soviet Jewry.

This conversation and other initiatives in the Jewish community are looking back at this crucial moment in history. For many American Jews, standing up for Soviet Jewry was an essential building block of their own identity. They look back with pride and nostalgia, uplifted by the fact that they were part of what they see as a great moment in history.

Since the emotions run so deep about this experience it's been almost impossible to engage in a communal conversation on whether public confrontation was really the best route to freeing Soviet Jews. Nor has there been investigation into the archives of the communist government to examine what really drove the shift in Soviet Policy.

What Sharansky and Wiesel did not recall in their conversation is that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Jewish leader who stood at the helm of the Jewish underground in Russia, by and large opposed the public confrontation approach. From the inception of the communist oppression of Jews, it was Chabad Lubavitch that kept the flame of Jewish life alive.

As former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who for years was in the Mossad, said in 1994, "in the fifties when we began to send our agents to Russia we discovered a secret network that reached into every Jewish community operated by the Lubavitcher Rebbe."

The Israelis and Chabad worked hand in hand in Russia in those years. When Lishkat Hakesher, the secret arm of the Israeli prime minister's office, began to orchestrate public confrontation in the West, the Rebbe demanded they be restrained. Based on his intimate knowledge of Russia, he felt that this would endanger Jews in the Soviet Union. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was considering accepting the Rebbe's view but he died in office and the new Prime Minister Golda Meir was not receptive to the idea.

The Rebbe was not against activism, and he stated time and again that the movement in the US was bolstering Jewish identity there. But in his view, the road to freedom was through quiet diplomacy. The Rebbe was deeply involved in behind-the-scenes dealings with Ronald Reagan and Michael Gorbachev in an effort that is thought by some to have paved the way for Jews to leave Russia.

Now that a quarter of a century has passed, the time has come for historians and academics to a fresh look at the issue. We need to investigate more deeply what transpired in that time. It would be fascinating to uncover the records of Soviet decision-making buried deep in the Kremlin. On the Israeli side, a review of Lishkat Hakesher could prove to be treasure trove of vital information.

No question that American Jews should be proud of their efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry. But history demands that we dig a bit deeper to discover what really happened. Was it the public demonstrations or the behind-the-scenes diplomacy that finally pushed the Russians to permit Jewish immigration? Did the demonstrations, while strengthening Jewish identity in the US, have any negative impact on Jews in Russia?

As for Soviet Jewry, the Rebbe's Army emerged from the shadows to create a Jewish renaissance. Last week, the largest Jewish museum in the world was dedicated in Moscow. In Dnepropetrovsk, the Ukrainian city where the Rebbe's father served as chief rabbi before he was arrested and sent to the gulag, where he died, opened the largest Jewish community center on the globe.

--- Rabbi David Eliezrie is a Chabad Shliach in California and author of the upcoming book "The Chabad Mystique"

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Opinions and Comments
are you sure this gives kovod to the Rebbe?
(11/13/2012 3:16:42 PM)
The Real Story
It is very telling that hardly anyone cared about the Federation convention, whereas the shluchim convention got worldwide coverage. That shows who really is in the forefront of Jewish activism, and we really don't need to worry about what was said at the irrelevant GA.
(11/13/2012 3:28:15 PM)
I see why you would adamantly want to see recognition being deservedly given to the Rebbe in light of everything that we know. Indeed, to attempt to deny or even casually shrug off the innumerable influence that the Rebbe had specifically on Soviet Jewry over decades and decades would be to deny incontrovertible historical evidence. Yet, perhaps that is merely an extreme which we as Lubavitchers are prone to notice. What was the function of this Federation event? Was it meant to be a Kinnus Hashluchim? Or was it a secular spectacle outlined with a certain premise OTHER than give well- deserved, overdue credit to the network of Lubavitch and its dear Rebbe? I think we all receive some measure of gratification when we hear Bibi Netanyahu telling the UN his amazing encounter with the Rebbe. Why? Because he is directly correlating his cause with and through the Lubavitcher Rebbes holy words! And the whole world hears about it! In this instance, I do not think that Elie Wiesel or Natan Sharansky have forgotten the work of the Rebbe. Wiesel had many a yechidus and letter from the Rebbe; it was he who spoke to the Federal court at the climax of the Seforim case in a moving and living testimony to the greatness of Chabad Lubavitch and the Rebbe. Rather, let me humbly suggest- not to attempt to clash with the main content of the article, which was expressed very well- that the function for the participation of these two men was on a different scale and agenda than what we would be privy to witness at a Chabad event. But I do not think that they have forgotten the Rebbe. Rather, they were delivering to an audience that wasn't interested in hearing of such matters. THAT is an issue, and it is our achrayus to see to it that we spread the light even to the darkest chutza, and witness the Rebbes influence and guidance prevailing.
(11/13/2012 4:30:34 PM)
The Jewish Federations are clearly...
Against anything that recognizes HKB"H, Torah and its representatives and leaders, such as the Rebbe.

They want to have their cake and eat it too, meaning, they want to have a Jewish Identity and still live as the nations of the world, eat at macDonalds and deny the Boray Olam, so no surprises there. Many assimilated Jews feel comfortable at the Federations and continue to live a gentile life devoid of Judaism, with a focus on the new Jewish style which is Holocaust and secular Israel.

Until they come back to their true jewish identity and values, such news will continue, no surprise there, But when the Jewish people and State begin following derech haTorah, they will be shocked at how the arab enemies will just fall to the side and the respect of the world will follow, Its up to us, and then Moshiach will be here...we just need to be a positive the way with achdus and love of fellow Jews
(11/13/2012 5:09:54 PM)
down under
BH the Rebbe's impact is felt in every corner of the world in a big way.... In my opinion this article belittles the Rebbe's kovod. Something which is truly honorable at the core doesn't need to care/chase for it's honour
(11/13/2012 6:07:42 PM)
Not for Everyone
Not everyone has to comment on every minor event etc. that in some way is not complimentary of Lubavitch. However, this is Rabbi Eliezrie's thing, and it is a good thing that he is doing it, and putting on record those omissions that people will conveniently forget when it suits them. Yasher Koach.
(11/13/2012 8:40:55 PM)
Did anyone actually read the article, or just the title? It's not about aknowledging the Rebbe's role in the history of Soviet Jewry. It's about determining whether the demonstrations that they're all so proud of actually assisted the Jews, or whether the Rebbe's opinion was correct, and protest were only detrimental, as opposed to quieter, more diplomatic methods.

Thank you COLlive for another misleading sensationalist title.
(11/14/2012 10:37:53 AM)
maybe to the rest of the world, we are not as significant as we think we are. especialy coming back from the kinus.
(11/14/2012 10:57:41 AM)
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