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A Reawakening
by Judy Lash Balint
July 6, 2002

The passion is still there. Decades after the successful conclusion of their struggle to emigrate to Israel, former refuseniks and prisoners of Zion have not lost the steely determination and grit that made them such implacable foes of the Evil Empire.

Last week dozens of them gathered at a special session of the World Congress of Russian Jews, which convened in Jerusalem. The faces bear more lines; the hair is greying, but the speeches still hold the resonance of modern day Jewish heroism.

There stood former Moscow activist Yuli Kosharovsky, urging the American representatives of the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union (UCSJ) to take up the cause of civil marriages and divorce in Israel. Lev Ulanovsky, who speaks in impeccable English raises a question about monitoring anti-Semitism in Europe. There was Anatoly Khazanov, with whom I'd corresponded during his refusenik years, demanding action on the boycott of Israel by European academics. Edward Markov and Dina Beilina question the focus on the FSU when there's so much anti-Semitism in Europe now.

A few rows back sit Vladimir Lifschitz and Alek Zelichonek: the last time I'd seen them was in 1986 at a session of their underground Hebrew class I'd visited in Leningrad. Sitting quietly to the side in the front row is former prisoner of Zion Yosef Mendelevich, veteran of 11 years in a Soviet prison camp. There's former refusenik Aaron Moonblit, now president of the Association of Russian language Journalists. Dina Beilina and Yudit Ratner, courageous women who spoke out for the prisoners of Zion during those dark days, are in the audience. Other clandestine Hebrew teachers, Ari and Mila Volvovsky; mathematician and 10 year refusenik Yevgeny Lein are also present.

Most of these people emigrated during the1980s, before the latest wave of immigrants from the FSU added a million citizens to the state of Israel. They were the vanguard, the intellectual and ideological giants of a movement that would ultimately bring down the Soviet Union.

In the Israel of 2002 they run the gamut of religious and political affiliation. In the room are bearded men with black hats and dangling tzitzit, like Ari Fein of Tekoa, Misha Elbert and Zalman Gilishensky. More than a few sport the knitted kippa of the national religious movement and are residents of Efrat and Maale Adumim. Most are bare headed, but some of these espouse the far right ideology of Moledet and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteynu party, while others follow the fanatically secular Shinui. In other words, this is no monolithic community--they are a microcosm of Israeli society.

For the UCSJ contingent that has traveled from the US (UCSJ president Yossi Abramowitz: national director Micah Naftalin and FSU Bureau coordinator Leonid Stonov) the event is a reminder of the power of their former clients.

Besides the purely enjoyable reunion of the activists with a few of their American and British counterparts, the gathering has a more serious aspect. The UCSJ is looking to form coalitions with other human rights groups to take up the struggle against hatred of Jews, Israel and democracy that still emanates from extremists in the FSU and has spread to Europe. Who better to lead the fight than those with a passion for human rights who successfully challenged the demons of anti-Semitism in the USSR ?

Remember the only groups to walk out of the UN conference in Durban last year with Israel? It was the Russian NGO's who had been sensitized by working with UCSJ.

Don't be surprised if the new leaders in the fight for Israel and against global anti-Semitism have names that were once familiar in another time and place.