Long before the rise of Hitler, anti-Semitism was alive and well in Eastern Europe. Whenever social or political or economic crises occurred anywhere in the region--including Russia--storms of anti-Semitism erupted replete with pogroms and suffering for the Jews.
We may again be entering such a period. As the Soviet Union slips into anarchy, chaos and severe economic hardships, glasnost has allowed the anti-Semites to come out of the closet. Responding to deep emotional nationalistic feelings, they blame the Jews for the country's growing problems.
The Soviet Union's Jewish residents are close to panic. Even people who barely identified as Jews are suddenly clamoring to escape to Israel.
The relatively free right to emigrate now exists. The problem is that the conveyances for bringing Jews to Israel is inadequate. Every available flight is currently booked through mid-September. Emigrants have taken to driving their cars to Budapest, where they abandon their vehicles and board flights to Tel Aviv.
Given the political turmoil in Eastern Europe, no one can know how long the gates will remain open. There are many ways they could be closed. The Palestinians and Arab governments are urging the Kremlin to stop immigration to Israel, just as they pressured the British in the late 1930s to restrict immigration into Palestine. The rising tide of nationalism inside the Soviet Union could yield a new government disinclined to allow emigration, or conservatives could force Mikhail Gorbachev to change his policies. The recent bloodshed in Baku is a dark harbinger of the potential oppression that could befall many Soviet Jews if the situation inside the Soviet Union worsens.
Meanwhile, American Jews also seem strangely caught in a 1930s-time warp. Since the end of World War II, many have vowed never again to remain quiet when a community of Jews is threatened. Yet when history again calls upon American Jews to work to save their suffering cousins, people are strangely silent. The intifada in the Israeli-occupied territories, an uninspired Israeli leadership, the past struggles for Soviet Jews, fascination with the democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe, inability to assimilate the unbelievably quick pace of world events--all these factors have combined to create an unnerving fatigue and cynicism that has swept through the American Jewish community and made it unresponsive to the cries of many leaders and organizations.
Israel must prepare for an influx of Soviet Jews. A sense of excitement and challenge is sweeping the country. In turn, some Israelis have tried to link the plight of Soviet Jews with territorial claims on the West Bank. History will treat harshly any Israeli leader who endangers, through the use of grandiose and threatening rhetoric, the ability of Soviet Jews to flee to safety.
Let us be frank, however. A minuscule number of incoming Soviet Jews now seek to live in the West Bank--at the most 1% to 2%. This tiny number will have no impact on Arab or Israeli claims in a settlement process.
The vehemence of the Arab outcry against Soviet Jewish immigrants, even into pre-1967 Israel, raises the most ominous questions concerning whether the Arabs oppose military occupation of the West Bank or the Jewish presence in the region completely--hence Israel's right to exist.
For Americans, there is a clear path of action that we must take:
--Keep the pressure on Moscow to make sure that those Jews who wish to leave can, and that direct air links to Israel be expanded.
--Keep the pressure on Israel to make sure that Soviet Jews being absorbed are not directed to the occupied territories.
--Communicate to Arab governments and Palestinian representatives that we oppose settlement in the occupied territories, but we strongly support the immigration of Soviet Jews into Israel and view the current Arab campaign against them as threatening to the integrity of efforts to shape an effective peace process.
--Increase public and private assistance to Israel as it engages in the gargantuan task of absorbing the refugees.
Concerted action now could avert potential disaster tomorrow. Do we have the wisdom and the courage to act more skillfully today than our predecessors behaved over five decades ago? So far, the portents have not been encouraging. Never again? Wanna bet?