Tag Archives: Zionism

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. 

Building the “New Jew”

In this excerpt from the third draft chapter of my book, I write about my experience working on kibbutz for five months as part of a ten month programme (like a gap year) in Israel, 1978-79. For the first five months I took a course at the Institute for Youth Leaders from Abroad in Jerusalem (the machon), followed by time on Kibbutz Bet Ha’emek. In the chapter, I discuss in quite intellectual terms my dubiousness about the relevance for the late 1970s of labour Zionist pioneering through settlement on a kibbutz. There was, however a more concrete way in which my life and that ideology encountered each other – through my body, especially my working body.

Some of my Habonim group on Bet Ha’emek. I am in the bottom right corner, with the ginger Jewfro

When we moved up to the kibbutz after the machon course ended in early February I soon realized that what mattered was to be assigned as a permanent member of a work team, rather than being assigned each day wherever an extra pair of hands was needed. That took a while, in part because I spent a while in the citrus groves, partly through a connection with my kibbutz family. The work there involved climbing up ladders and into trees to pick the fruit but I have a fear of heights I have never overcome. By the end of February, more often than not I was working in the bananas and mostly enjoying the work and the company. There were some bad days, about one of which when the work was dull and the supervision unpleasant I wrote: “how mad A.D. Gordon (a key labour Zionist thinker) must have been … The chalutzic (pioneering) challenge is boredom. The Yishuv (pre-State Zionist community in Palestine) was built by near-lunatics.” But for the most part I enjoyed the days and was downhearted when the team leader for the bananas told me towards the end of March that there was no room left on the permanent team. Yet, less than two weeks later, while I was paired with him for the arduous job of picking, he let me know I was part of the team, which cheered me up immensely.

I was aware of how my body was growing stronger as I worked, not minding that I would be so exhausted after the day’s labour, which normally ended at lunchtime after a 5:30 am start, that I would need to sleep through the afternoon. When someone in the group remarked on how my upper body had expanded, I was as full of pride as I had ever been when school-teachers praised my academic work. The values had changed, from cleverness and book learning to enthusiasm for hard and sometimes boring physical work, but I relished whatever praise I received about my work ethic. Some of the experience was about learning new skills, such as which of the shoots of new banana plants should be allowed to grow for the new season and which needed to be chopped and poisoned (having six leaves on the 6th of June was a good sign). I was given the opportunity to learn how to drive the tractor, the first time I had operated any vehicle. That was not an altogether successful experience. Once I nearly got into fight when I was failing to reverse the tractor with a trailer full of people in the parking area outside of the dining hall and someone from a youth group living on the kibbutz decided to take over. On my last day of work I was driving part of the team back to the dining room when we heard a group form the avocados shouting in our direction. Thinking they wanted to pass, I pulled in towards the side of the road, only later to be told that they were shouting because I was already clipping some of the avocado trees and that if it were not my last day they would have killed me.

Bet Ha’emek archaeological garden, Dr. Avishai Teicher, 2014 

Driving aside, I took great pleasure in proving that I could hold and carry the biggest bunches of bananas that were picked. One person would use a machete to first cut into the plant to lower the bunch to the point where the other person could take the weight on his shoulder (women were not allowed to perform this task). Then the chopper would cut the stem by which the bunch was attached to the plant and the bearer would carry it to the carriages in which the picked bunches were piled in a specific way. When I graduated to becoming a chopper, carrying a machete on my belt, I felt that I had really made it. Equally rewarding was being invited around for tea by a couple of my older workmates who were members of the kibbutz. During this period, which lasted until early July, someone gave us “an enlivening talk about the origins of the kibbutz movement, to the extent that I felt I was with those young people who became chalutzim.” As I was about to leave I wrote: “I am just about to get into kibbutz, ready to live in Israel, to learn Ivrit (Hebrew), and I am being taken away.

“A Nation Reborn on it’s Ancestral Soil” Jewish National Fund art by Otte Wallisch 1950. https://www.reddit.com/r/PropagandaPosters/comments/7d88aj/a_nation_reborn_on_its_ancestral_soil_jewish/

My body was the site for the realization of a Zionist slogan I already knew “we came to the Land to build and to be built in it.” Despite my predominant belief that agricultural work would not be fulfilling, not a path to my “self-realization,” it became a path to constituting myself as a “new Jew,” an ideal figure of the Zionist movement contrasting the  negative image of the Diaspora Jew. Whereas the diaspora Jew was weak, pale and timid, the new Jew would be muscular, bronzed and brave.[1] Working on the kibbutz, especially as a member of the team in the bananas, was the discipline and self-care through which I asserted both my masculinity and my Jewishness as part of a national collective in Israel. Where labour Zionist ideology had failed to persuade, labour Zionist practice had reached into the sinews of my limbs and fortified the muscles of my body. Where my intellect and soul had resisted the idea of fulfillment in physical effort, my body had relished the sense of corporeal empowerment. I had happily and enthusiastically become a Zionist subject.[2]

[1] See Reuven Firestone, Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), Chapter 11, “The New Jew.”

[2] On the Foucualdian notion of self-constitution as a subject and care of the self, see Jon Simons, Foucault and the Political (London: Routledge, 1995), Chapter 8.