A documentary chronicling the thirty year history of the struggle to liberate Soviet Jews


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Film Review: Refusenik

Reviewed by Fern Sidman

'Refusenik' - Refuses to Tell the Whole Story

A film directed by Laura Bialis

The film 'Refusenik' is a seminal retrospective documentary chronicling the thirty year history of the struggle to liberate Soviet Jews from the spiritual shackles of bondage that was endemic to their existence in the former USSR. Told through the eyes and brave voices of such celebrity dissidents as Anatoly (Natan) Scharansky, Vladimir Slepak, Yosef Begun, Yosef Mendelevitch, Ida Nudel, Sylva Zalmanson, Alexander Kholmiansky and Yuli Edelstein, director Laura Bialis takes us on a multi-faceted journey of the creation of a revolutionary global grass-roots movement for freedom from tyranny and oppression.

Having been denied the right to live as clearly identifiable Jews by a repressive and often brutal totalitarian regime for several decades, a group of Soviet Jewish dissidents, also known as prisoners of conscience, courageously and overtly challenged the draconian dictates of the Politburo.

As Jews yearning to re-connect with their tradition and faith, their opportunities to express their Judaism were proscribed to them by the Soviets. They were prevented from attending synagogue, nor could they learn Hebrew, eat kosher food or conduct holiday rituals. All vestiges of Jewish life were expunged from Soviet society and any attempt to lead an observant Jewish life was classified as treachery. Any Jew who dared to practice the faith of their ancestors and challenge the monolith of Communism was publicly excoriated as a criminal and traitor. To solidify their position on the Jewish question to the general populace, the Soviets unleashed a vitriolic campaign of anti-Zionist propaganda that permeated both the educational system and the media.

Suffice it to say, those Soviet Jews seeking to emigrate to Israel were denied exit visas, placed under intense governmental scrutiny and surveillance and labeled enemies of the state. The punitive measures enforced against them included incessant harassment, the denial of admission to universities, ridicule in the media, termination of employment and the final unspeakable horror of arrest, a show trial and imprisonment in the Gulag of Soviet forced labor camps.

Bialis begins by providing us with a brief lesson on the centuries old tradition of blatant anti-Semitism in the motherland. The murderous pogroms of Czarist Russia and the Stalinist purges are the blood stained backdrop for the protracted battle of and for religious emancipation. History records that Jews were loyal citizens of the Czarist regimes, having fought with uncommon valor and bravery in the Russian military and later in time were in the forefront of establishing a new "classless" society as foretold by Marx and Lenin; free of racism and religious persecution. Their utopian ideals and dreams of an authentically egalitarian society were soon torn asunder and utterly shattered by the brutal realities of totalitarianism.

The film includes rare and never before seen black and white footage of the early days of the Soviet Jewish struggle. In broken English, we hear the testimony of the dissidents; cramped into a small apartment, some speaking in hushed tones, sending out their own personal message in a bottle. When word of their plight reached the shores of the Western world the nascent student protest movements were poised to explode on the American landscape. The year was 1964, and young people were brimming with ideological enthusiasm. Jews were not immune to the contagious spirit.

Thus, 'Refusenik' focuses on and lauds the efforts of such liberation movements as the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry and a whole host of local councils established for the sole purpose of bringing the spotlight on the agenda of Soviet Jews. We are guided through a step-by-step manual on how to build a grass roots movement as we see the various demonstrations held for Soviet Jews, as well as concerts, petition drives and the courting of sympathetic politicians. We hear from the founder of SSSJ, Jacob Birnbaum and New York director, Glenn Richter who speak of persuading people to come to demonstrations that were held at the Soviet Consulate in New York and the Soviet Embassy in Washington. As we imbibe the visuals of such historic moments we learn that the genesis of this movement saw a handful of students including writer Yossi HaLevi Klein (a Holocaust survivor's son) who were hell bent on making amends for the deafening silence and callow indifference of a previous generation of American Jews who did not take to the streets when their brethren were being butchered by the Nazis.

We hear excerpts from the speeches of the late Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a Cold War anti-Communist Democrat from Washington state, who in 1974 co-sponsored the Jackson-Vanik amendment in the Senate. The amendment called for the denial of normal trade relations to certain countries with non-market economies that restricted the freedom of emigration. The amendment was intended to help refugees, particularly minorities, specifically Jews, to emigrate from the Soviet Bloc. We also listen to the words of such West Coast activists as Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and drapery manufacturer Si Frumkin who regale us with old war stories about the early days of the Soviet Jewish struggle in Los Angeles and the various and sundry activities that were organized on their behalf.

'Refusenik' however, tragically fails us as it consciously omits a huge and critically important chunk of history as it pertains to activism on behalf of Soviet Jews. What we don't hear or ever see in this film for other than a split second is the vitally significant contributions of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane and his Jewish Defense League as progenitors in the battle to save Soviet Jews from being spiritually decimated. It was Rabbi Kahane who was the first to give voice to the fact that the Soviets would not be moved or persuaded to release their Jews until and if their precious detente with the US were seriously threatened. Indeed, it was the Soviets who desperately needed lucrative trade agreements with the US, and therefore the United States possessed a great deal of political leverage with them. It was he who insisted that US foreign policy (as it applied to the Soviets) include human rights issues.

While students of history may agree or disagree, it is common knowledge that it was the JDL's utilization of anti-establishment activities on behalf of Soviet Jews that put this issue on page one of the newspapers; in a place where people saw it and began to care about it and more importantly began to take concrete action for it. It was the JDL who were the ones who vandalized Soviet property, threatened the safety of Soviet diplomats and engaged in the kinds of activities that these "nice Jews" who sponsored this film would rather not remember or think about. It was Rabbi Kahane who taught the world that it is the militant that serves as the gadfly to the moderate, forcing him to do things he never would have dreamt of. The glaring omissions of such a potent segment of Jewish activism in the US is downright appalling and smacks of the kind of news blackouts that were once associated with such government controlled media outlets as Pravda and Isvestia.

The film takes great pains to memorialize the efforts of those who had the temerity to smuggle crucial information and Jewish religious articles to their kinsmen in Russia as well as the heroic ventures of Soviet Jewish activists. The film explores the events leading up to the Leningrad plane hijacking incident of May 15, 1970, when a group of Soviet dissidents lead by Eduard Kuznetsov and Mark Dymshits attempted to hijack a 12 seat civilian airliner in which they alone were passengers in order to escape to the West. The group was tried and two were sentenced to death, however due to intense international pressure, their sentence was commuted. We are choked with palpable emotion as we watch the tale of Anatoly (Natan) Scharansky, who having just married his wife Avital was deported to Siberia where he spent 12 grueling years at the hands of his oppressors while enduring mind numbing interrogations and barbaric torture. Throughout it all, he never acquiesced to the demands of his captors and never relinquished his desire to remain a proud Jew who wished to live a full Jewish life in the Land of Israel.

Ultimately, we are left with a joyous conclusion as 'Refusenik' documents the eventual relaxation of Soviet emigration policies and the mass exodus of Soviet Jews to Israel. What is most interesting are the comments of former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev who expressed sadness that those Jews who he attended university with and who possessed such brilliance would want to leave the USSR. We almost feel sorry for him, as though he has lost his best friends, yet we hasten to remind ourselves how initially reluctant he was to address human rights issues while engaging in disarmament summits with President Reagan.

'Refusenik' is a documentary that will inspire and give hope to all oppressed peoples and will serve as an invaluable educational tool for a new generation of young people who know very little about the courageous few who carved a path of freedom, despite the punishments that were inflicted upon them by their tormentors. Having said this, the filmmakers still need to be taken to task for the historical distortions and omissions that are clearly prevalent here. Any revised version of history causes alarm and must be addressed in the strongest of terms. We can only hope that a new generation of filmmakers dedicated to accuracy and to conveying the unexpurgated truth, will produce more documentaries of this genre.


from the August 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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