Don’t Forget the Modern Maccabee Story: the Refuseniks

The heroic story of Soviet Jewry is nearly forgotten now, perhaps when it is most needed.
December 17, 2020
Courtesy author

Hanukkah is a joyous holiday that Jews have celebrated for over two millennia. A small but determined group of Jews called the Maccabees revolted against the mighty Greek Seleucid invaders who had captured Jerusalem and desecrated our Holy Temple. They defeated a much larger force against great odds and were heroes to generations of Jews.

Stories of Jewish resistance and resilience have served as sources of inspiration for generations of oppressed Jews. The Maccabees modeled courage and determination to hold fast to their Jewish traditions and identities in the face of an assault by Antiochus.

As anti-Semitism has re-emerged as an ugly reality in college campuses, secondary schools, social media and elsewhere, the models and lessons of Hannukah remain an important ingredient in strengthening resilience among Jewish students.

But a modern Maccabee story exists in our own time to combat the new forms of anti-Semitism. A mere half-century ago, a group of Jews living in the Soviet Union demonstrated their own form of resistance to a totalitarian regime that sought to deprive them of their ability to live as Jews. And yet, this chapter of our history is practically missing from the curricula of our children. The heroic story of Soviet Jewry is nearly forgotten now, perhaps when it is most needed.

The heroic story of Soviet Jewry is nearly forgotten now, perhaps when it is most needed.

The Refuseniks from the former Soviet Union (FSU)

Beginning in the 1960s, small numbers of Soviet Jews, following in the footsteps of Mattathias — the father of Judah Maccabee and a leader against the Hellenization of the Jews — began to reclaim their Jewish tradition. Authentic Jewish expression was practically prohibited by Soviet authorities; as a consequence, Jews began requesting permission to emigrate to Israel. Initially, almost all such requests were refused by the Soviet Union. Those being denied permission were called Refuseniks.

The repercussions for those who dared to apply to leave the Communist regime of “Mother Russia” were cruel, sadistic and hateful against the Refuseniks. A person applying to emigrate was often publicly fired from their job to discourage other factory workers from wanting to apply to leave also. Refuseniks that were students in universities were dismissed from their schools. Kids in elementary schools were taunted by anti-Semitic teachers or beaten by the classmates in the schoolyard. In order to increase the sense of isolation, the authorities cut some Refuseniks’ phone or postal service.

Refusenik leaders like Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky were arrested on trumped up charges and sentenced in show trials to lengthy prison sentences. Even prominent Hebrew teachers, such as Yosef Begun and Yuli Edelstein (who later became speaker of Israel’s Knesset) were sent to prison or to a forced labor camp in Siberia. Expressions of Jewish tradition or culture were suppressed; for example, when Hebrew teachers in the large cities were arrested, their classes were then held in the heart of forests in rural areas.

An unfortunate handful of Refusenik were even told that they were crazy to want to leave a “Workers’ Paradise like the USSR” and therefore were sent to insane asylums, where they were illegally subjected to strong psychiatric medications and kept in straightjackets.

The story of the Refusenik’s fight and eventual victory is no less miraculous or inspirational than that of the Maccabees. Their struggle lasted a generation, and they did the unfathomable — they held public protests and told the feared KGB that the proud Jews were no longer scared of being arrested, jailed and beaten .With intelligence, courage, perseverance and the support of Jews and allies around the world, they prevailed and played a part in bringing down the world’s most powerful totalitarian system. Thanks to their leadership and sacrifice, around two million other Soviet Jews left the former Soviet Union, mostly for Israel or North America.

Courtesy author

We are instructed to teach our children about the exodus from Egypt. Passover, Purim and yes, Hanukkah, provide convenient occasions to revisit events in Egypt, Persia and Judea. But we do ourselves and Jewish students a disservice when we leave out the most recent chapter of Jewish resilience — the story of the Soviet Jewry struggle.

Fortunately, Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov, the talented daughter of two of the most famous Refuseniks (Sylva Zalmanson and Edward Kuznetsov), partnered with the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education at Bar Ilan University to address this problem. Together they developed an excellent new educational resource called the Refusenik Project. This web site provides online curricula for a variety of ages (elementary, middle and high schools), and educational settings (schools, camps and youth groups) covering this important chapter of modern Jewish history. This wealth of educational content is free of charge.

And just as our dreidels remind us that “ A Great Miracle Happened Here” two thousand years ago in Jerusalem, the bravery, faith and courage of the Refuseniks reminds us that just one generation ago, “A Great Miracle Happened Here AGAIN” when the Refuseniks were finally reunited in their homeland Israel along with two million of their brothers and sisters.

Morey Schapira is a former national president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews. He is currently keeping the story of the Soviet Jewry Struggle alive and inspiring the next generations with its message via RefusenikProject.org.

David Waksberg is a former national vice president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews and the former executive director of Jewish LearningWorks. He assisted in the editing of this article.

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