Category Archives: Antisemitism

To Russia with love: Jewish Diaspora in the USSR

The Jewish community’s ongoing campaign to support Soviet Jews facing persecution was supplemented by an Israeli programme of sending UK Jews on Intourist holiday packages to the Soviet Union. A steady stream of Habonim members travelled under these auspices, whose precise character was kept quiet but we believed was based in the Israeli foreign ministry. Our purpose was to meet up with refuseniks, Jews whose applications to emigrate to Israel had been denied and were then generally victimised, losing jobs and educational opportunities. We were tasked with taking them information pamphlets in Russian about life in Israel, as well as easily barterable goods such as toothpaste and jeans. Being still youthful, I was far less concerned about the risks than my parents were. The worst we had heard of was some visitors being roughed up by KGB agents during the tense period around the Moscow Olympics.

I was paired with an old Habonim friend from Manchester and we were due to travel in early January 1981 for a week, visiting Moscow, Kiev and what was then still Leningrad. There was something thrilling about the cloak and dagger preparatory interview for the visit with an Israeli calling himself Moshe, whom we met while attending Habonim veida (conference) at a nearby hotel in Shrewsbury, where we ate sandwiches and he looked around furtively every now and again. We were instructed in how to try to conceal printed information on our persons as went through Soviet customs and immigration, given some numbers and names to call when we got there, and asked to disguise any information we brought back, such as new names and addresses, among university files we took with us. If stopped and questioned, we were to deny meeting Moshe, even if when asked where we got the pamphlets from and we said, from our local rabbi, they responded, is that Rabbi Moshe? We were also told not to pretend not to know other people on the tour we might recognise.

When we checked in for the Aeroflot flight to Moscow we immediately saw that the Habonim camps organiser was going to be on the same plane. We arrived in Moscow when it was already dark. At first, I thought I was being waved through passport control and customs, but then I was beckoned aside and asked to start emptying my pockets. I had taken one of my father’s old overcoats, stuffed full of the pamphlets, so I looked broader than usual. My suitcase was also searched, but it had little or nothing in it. After a while waiting in a side room, my fellow traveller was brought in, who I was very glad to see. There were two non-uniformed men asking us questions and a uniformed woman who translated for them. The questioning was not particularly aggressive, though one of them got it into his head that I knew some Russian, because I had with me my address book which my father had given me years earlier as a souvenir from his business trip to the USSR, which was decorated with palekh, Russian lacquer. We ended chatting in a friendly way with the translator while the other officials wrote up a long document, a protocol, in which they detailed everything that had been confiscated from us. Then we were allowed to join the bus, our prim tour guide and the other three people on our particular tour, one of whom (a carpenter from Liverpool) had been very disconcerted to have also been brought in to empty his pockets.

We had been told to go on the trips included in the tour package, so we got to see Red Square and no doubt other sites I do not recall. We were to use our free time to make contact with refuseniks and arrange to meet them. In Moscow we met Benjamin Bogomolny who had been sent out of Moscow for the Olympics but had managed to sneak back to be interviewed by Western media. He told us to go to the metro to a particular station and sit in the last carriage. As we made our way of the station with him, he pointed out the KGB agent who passed us on an escalator. Bogomolny had to wait twenty years, until 1986, to be granted an exit visa. Soviet surveillance was not intended to be covert, but to demonstrate that it was constant and proximate.

We flew from there to Kiev, where we felt most nervous, as if feeling the closeness of the site of the 1941 massacre of Babi Yar, where some 33,000 Jews from Kiev were murdered by Nazis and Ukrainian auxiliaries. We had to find our way to the apartment of Lev Elbert, another well-known refusenik who had applied for a visa in 1976, using the tram and a street map and got lost in the dark and the snow. Fortunately, someone helped us out, so we assume that person was not a KGB agent. It turned out Lev needed to go out so his brother Mikhail hosted us for most of the time. He told us he had been beaten up outside the apartment quite recently. So, we had some trepidation we made our way back to the hotel. The following day, when out guide told us that she had arranged for a radio journalist to interview our group, we felt compelled to participate, as if it were a scheme to keep us out of mischief.

From Kiev we flew to Leningrad, which was the most enjoyable leg of the trip for me. The contact we had led us to a group who were not aiming to emigrate to Israel but to the US and were learning English rather than Hebrew. We had a few visits over the days we spent in Leningrad, including mid-morning drinks, and were also taken on a trip or two, including one to the fabulous Hermitage museum where I feasted on its Impressionist collection. In principle, our purpose was to support refuseniks and bolster their connection with Israel. But after hearing so many experiences of state-sponsored antisemitism, especially denial of educational and professional opportunities, it would have extremely churlish to have denied the deep sense of connection we felt. The secretive circumstances of the trip and the eagerness with which the group embraced us had the intense emotional feel of a Russian novel. In any case, we were both Western Jews, not Israelis, the descendants of earlier emigration from Eastern and Central Europe to the West. Maybe Moshe would be disappointed, but so what?

The Hermitage Musem today. Image by Q K from Pixabay

Some more intense emotion came as we left Leningrad and the USSR. As we checked out at the airport, I noticed our tour guide pointing myself and my traveling companion out to the passport officials. We were both taken away separately but I was not detained for long. An official held up the protocol I had been given when I entered and told me it had cause me a lot of bother, so I pointed out to him that it had really been more bother to them to list everything. When I emerged there was no sign of my companion and as time went on, I became more worried. Had they found or planted something on him that would be grounds to hold him? What if they did not release him before we boarded? Would I be allowed to stay behind and if so, how would we pay for a new ticket? Would I be taken for further questioning? I went to the toilets and disposed of a photograph of a group we had been given by the Elberts to give to Moshe and which was hidden in one of my university files.

Much to my relief, my partner appeared before boarding time and we were on our way. On the plane, an older bearded traveller said to my companion, ‘I see you are becoming a refusenik  yourself.’ When we landed, we were finally able to talk to the Habonim camps organiser and found out that on her tour of five, which went to Riga, four were there for the same purpose as us and had surprised each other by visiting the same person. The other person was there to visit relatives. We also told the other people on our tour what we had been up to, though their reaction did not betray what their view was. If I recall correctly, the older man with us may have had an ideological reason for taking the trip while the pair of women, around our own age, were simply curious. There was an unmemorable debrief with Moshe some time later. Despite the intensity of the connection I felt in Leningrad, I did not keep in touch with the group there and am not sure we even took names and addresses.

My visit to the USSR and especially the affective charge of the ties felt in Leningrad demonstrate that in practice I had a good deal of affinity for other Jews suffering antisemitic persecution. Our trip was funded by Israeli funds and the ostensible purpose was Zionist, to support emigration to Israel. Yet, the Jewish solidarity I sensed in Leningrad was diasporic, an affection for other Jews who wanted the same diaspora life as I enjoyed in a pluralist, liberal democratic country. Many Jewish organisations and communities, in the US in particular, practiced this solidarity, rather than focusing on the right to emigrate to Israel. They embodied the destiny chosen by the majority of Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia fleeing persecution and seeking better opportunities. My own family has branches who did not stop in the UK but went all the way from Eastern Europe across the Atlantic. Between 1881-1914, around two million Jews emigrated from the Russian Empire to the Americas, about half a million to Western Europe and only 80,000, or about 3%, to Palestine. The transatlantic route has also been the path chosen by my younger sister who is now a US citizen and, as I shall show, could have been my path too. I did not have a diasporic awakening as a result of my visit to Soviet refuseniks, but in practice I afforded as much legitimacy to Jewish diasporic existence as to Zionist settlement in Israel. 

Open letter to Rachel Reeves MP: Why I won’t vote Labour, though I hope for a Labour-led government

Dear Rachel,

You don’t know me but I’m one of your constituents and I wanted to take the time to explain why I won’t vote for you in this election, even though I hope to wake up on Friday morning to a Labour-led government that can implement its manifesto promises. I look forward to a government that will restore the NHS, mitigate the environmental crisis by investing in new energy and cutting fossil fuels, and bring vital services back into public control. I am filled with dread by the prospect of another Conservative government led by Boris Johnson, following his party’s lurch to the right, crashing us out of Europe and further into the social division and inequality that successive Tory governments have exacerbated.

Yet I won’t vote Labour because the party, especially its leadership, has utterly failed to deal with the antisemitism that has surfaced in its ranks. At first, this was something I didn’t want to believe was happening. I came back to the UK, to Leeds, after just over a decade in the US in December 2016, happy to be returning to the NHS – though not yet aware how much the years of austerity had reduced it . I was also looking forward to voting in a country with a mass social democratic party with a real chance to govern. Yet I could already sense that the Brexit referendum had let some dark genies out of the bottle, scapegoating various “others” for various wrongs, just as Trump has done. How, though, could such resentful racism have any hold in the Labour Party? I also didn’t want to believe that as a Jew I would be made to feel unwelcome in the party, especially after an earlier decade during which I lived in Israel, where I was very much on the left of politics, critical not only of Netanyahu’s government’s policies but the systemic oppression of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and Israel itself. That oppression is shielded in part by pernicious efforts, some of them funded by Israel’s Ministry for Strategic Affairs, to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. So, it seemed too convenient that no sooner did the Labour Party elect a left-winger than the ‘socialism of fools’ – antisemitism – took root in it. Surely it must be the case that anti-progressive politicians and press in both countries, and further afield, had found common cause in amplifying a few marginal cases of antisemitic expression on social media and occasional branch meetings? At first, then, I discounted some of what I heard. I have Israeli friends and know other Jews still in the Labour Party who continue to do so.

But I was learning too much from old friends, some of whom stayed in the party, some of whom left, as well as in regular news reports, to hold out on to my wishful thinking and denial. One friend was very much in the thick of it, trying to counter antisemitic tropes on new media and being constantly abused for doing so. Others were not finding their MPs willing to speak out and some began to find their local branch a hostile environment. Some of what I was told about is reflected in the Jewish Labour Movement evidence submitted to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, an investigation which in itself must cause the Party shame. I do not doubt that there is a concerted right-wing political and media campaign to discredit Corbyn and the Labour Party as much as possible. That’s what they do. But I also do not doubt that a trend has developed among some party members and supporters to substitute a genuine critique of capitalism with conspiracy theories featuring the Rothschilds, George Soros and other “Zios.” There is both antisemitism in the party and coordinated efforts by opponents of Labour and its current leadership to capitalize on it. But if the party really dealt with antisemitism, its opponents would have little ammunition.

Increasingly it became apparent that the party leadership was not interested in challenging the antisemites robustly, taking action that could easily have knocked this issue on the head. What I could justly expect of Jeremy Corbyn – or his staff – would be to call people out on the use of antisemitic tropes as they were posted on social media platforms and spoken at meetings, making it clear that nobody could count themselves as his supporter if they were also a racist. Instead, he hid behind disciplinary processes which have in any case proved inadequate. Of course, to call others out Jeremy Corbyn would have to begin with himself, expressing horror rather than mealy-mouthed “regret” that he had defended Mear One’s antisemitic mural. He would need to admit shame that he had slipped into the worst sort of English “polite antisemitism” by referring to British Jews as Zionists who don’t understand English irony. As a committed anti-racist, he must know by now that we have all been socialized into damaging racist attitudes and that we need to keep working to decolonize ourselves. If Jeremy Corbyn cannot demonstrate political, cultural and intellectual leadership on this issue, why not?

So, sadly I cannot vote for you on Thursday, even though I believe you are a good constituency MP – you’ve written in support of my partner’s PIP appeal – and have an admirable record in Parliament, not least on environmental issues that are close to my heart and current activism. I admit that if your majority were less secure, I would be agonising more on whether to vote for you or the Green candidate. Yet, I expect that you will understand my decision and hope that one day soon you will be able to let me know that the Labour Party is once again a safe political home for progressive Jews.

With best wishes,

Jon Simons