The major center of persecution of Jews nowadays is the Soviet Union. In a land openly dedicated to atheism, the 3,000,000 Jews of Russia suffer more than any other faith because they are attacked both for their religion and as a despised national minority. Last week in Washington, more than 500 representatives from 24 U.S. Jewish organizations gathered to plan the kind of loud foreign protest that so far has proved the best curb on Soviet antiSemitism.
There was plenty of evidence to prove that pious Soviet denials of anti-Jewish activity are hollow. The most topical was a book called Judaism Without Embellishment, published last year by the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. One cartoon from this "history" of Judaism showed a man with an exaggeratedly hooked nose described as a Zionist leader serving the "Hitlerite" invaders of the Ukraine.
Books for Yakuts. In the days of the Czar, Russian Jews were periodically subject to brutal, bloody pogroms, but they could often escape suffering by fleeing Russia. The Soviet government forbids emigration and plans its persecutions in more subtle ways. Theoretically, Russian Judaism is permitted to preserve its own culture. But all 17 Yiddish theaters in Russia have been closed down, and only six books in Yiddish have been published since 1959compared with 144 in one year alone for the 236,000 members of the obscure Yakut nation of Siberia.
The Russians have done all they could to discourage Jewish religious observance. Since 1956 the number of active synagogues has dropped from 450 to 97. There is only one kosher butcher shop and only one seminary for rabbis in all of Russia. Just before Passover last month, the Soviet government expressed its good will toward the Jews by allowing Moscow's chief rabbi to open a special matzo bakery. Two days later, it was closed down as a health hazard, and customs officials confiscated matzos shipped to Russia by American Jews.
Jewish Names. Sometimes persecution takes a more malevolent form. About half of all persons sentenced to death in recent years for such crimes against the state as black marketing and embezzlement have had Jewish names. In some parts of the Soviet Union, notably in Nikita Khrushchev's Ukraine, Jews constitute about 80% of the criminals sentenced to death.
Delegates to the Washington convention believe that the Soviet party bosses suspect Jews of having divided loyalties, and want to assimilate them forcibly into the mainstream of Russian life. At the end of their meeting, the Jewish leaders talked with President Johnson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, urged them to use their "good offices" so the Soviet government would be aware of U.S. concern for Russian Jews.
It is possible that enough such gestures might embarrass the Soviet government into easing up on the Jews. Recently, after a galaxy of European intellectuals and Communist parties in France, Britain and the U.S. made strong, astonished protests, Pravda announced that the Party's Ideological Commission had criticized Judaism Without Embellishment for its serious mistakes and admitted that it "may insult the feelings of believers." Last week, Aleksei Adzhubei, the editor of Izvestia and Khrushchev's son-in-law, announced that the book had been banned and all copies destroyed.