‘How the Soviets hijacked my Jewishness’

‘How the Soviets hijacked my Jewishness’

‘And how I got it back by standing for Israel’

Alexander Smukler
Alexander Smukler

One of the sayings we’ve heard during this crazy time, with its echoes of past horrors, is that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.”

Alexander Smukler of Montclair grew up in Moscow when the city still was the capital of the Soviet Union. “I am always looking for answers to current events in the past, and in my life experiences,” he said. “I try to analyze what’s going on now, and to predict what might happen in the future based on those experiences.”

Because he lived through a time unusually laden with history — the slow decline and precipitous fall of the USSR, and the Jewish exodus from the country and continent that had been their home for so long — he has a lot to compare.

Mr. Smukler was set off by the speech of the British director Jonathan Glazer as he accepted his Oscar for “The Zone of Interest.” The film was set outside Auschwitz and focuses on the camp’s commandant and his family, as they live a bucolic, near idyllic life, disturbed only by the screams of the doomed prisoners, whom the film’s viewers never see. It’s an insightful and original look at the Holocaust.

This is what Mr. Glazer said: “Our film shows where dehumanization leads at its worst. It’s shaped all of our past and present. Right now we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation, which has led to conflict for so many innocent people.”

(The men who stood behind him on the podium were the movie’s lead producers, Len Blavatnik and James Wilson.)

Mashka meets in Moscow in 1989. From left, Leonid Stonov, Valery Engel, Yuli Kosharovsky, Alexander Smukler, Roman Spektor, Michael Chlenov, Benny Lidsky, Yuri Semenovsky, Velvel Chernin.
(Alexander Smukler)

Although the inartfulness of his speech — odd for a man who’s also a screenwriter — makes it difficult to figure out exactly what he means — how do you “refute” Jewishness? How is the Holocaust hijacked? Beyond the self-righteous rage, what was he talking about? — it was clear enough to enrage Mr. Smukler, and to remind him of his own past.

“The guy stands up in front of millions of people who watched the ceremony and openly refused to be a Jew,” he said.

“His speech reminded me of myself in 1987. I was part of a small group of Jewish leaders who met in Moscow with a man named Faisal al-Husseini.

“Husseini also told us that we had to deny our Jewishness.”

Faisal al-Husseini, Mr. Smukler said, “was the second man in the PLO at that time. He was Yasser Arafat’s right-hand man, and his nickname was the Prince of Jerusalem. I had no access to information like this then, but later I learned that his grandfather had been the mayor of Jerusalem” — that was Musa Kazim Pasha al-Husayni — “and he was related to Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, who was famous for his collaboration with Hitler.”

How did the 27-year-old Sasha Smukler come to meet with Husseini?

Faisal al-Husseini

There’s a story there.

“The steering committee of the underground Jewish movement called Mashka got a message from a Hebrew teacher that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wanted to organize a secret meeting with a top leader of the PLO,” — Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization — Mr. Smukler said. “We were very surprised that the highest leadership of the PLO requested a meeting with the leadership not of the official Jewish organization, the anti-Zionism committee, but of the underground Jewish community.”

The committee’s chairman checked with the Israelis, through a Mossad-linked organization called Nativ — it was Israel’s liaison with Jewish groups behind the Iron Curtain — and “the Israelis gave it the green light,” Mr. Smukler said. “We would never have gone to a meeting with a senior member of the PLO if they hadn’t.”

The committee had eight members. “We all wanted to go, but we realized that if we all went, the KGB would find out who we all were. We were the leadership of the underground movement, and we had been so secret. We were very undercover. Five of us from different groups were nominated — I don’t want to say their names — and I was chosen. They let me go because I was the youngest, and I was there to take minutes.

“The other people at the meeting were known to the Soviet government as leaders of different Jewish groups.”

The meeting “was conducted under the ministry’s supervision, in one of its reception facilities in downtown Moscow,” he continued. “It was very secret. Very confidential. No journalists there.

“Years later, when I talked with a few Russian senior people from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I was told that they were very surprised by the PLO’s request.”

Faisal al-Husseini was a very well-educated, sophisticated, intellectually gifted, multi-lingual man; he spoke to the Jews he’d summoned first in fluent Hebrew before he switched to Arabic. (A translator repeated his words in Russian.)

It turned out that Husseini wanted to meet with those underground Jewish leaders “because he predicted that there would be mass migration of Jews from the Soviet Union — no one could have imagined in 1987 that it would soon be the former Soviet Union. He probably had heard from the PLO’s Soviet patrons that they were planning to open the gates wide for Jews who wanted to emigrate to Israel. The intelligence leadership already understood that Gorbachev was taking a different approach, and that, if those politics would continue, it would lead to massive emigration of Russian Jews to Israel — and he also predicted that Israel would be completely changed by it.

Husseini hoped to forestall that change, which he assumed would not be good for the PLO, by working with the Jewish underground to make life in the USSR more palatable to them.

“He wanted to have a conversation with us about what the PLO could do for Soviet Jews in order to make them more comfortable in the Soviet Union,” Mr. Smukler said.

In the USSR, antisemitism was paired with Jews’ inability to learn anything about Yiddishkeit, much less practice Judaism. They knew nothing, could do nothing, and were hated to who they were — a condition they could not change.

A symbol of Jews’ position in the USSR was in the line in everyone’s passport that detailed the holder’s “nationality.” The word Jew was stamped into every Jew’s official documents.

Jewish leaders met with the PLO leader in the MInistry of Foreign Affairs headquarters in Moscow.

“Husseini promised to use the PLO’s influence on the Soviet leaders take the word ‘Jew’ out of our passports,” Mr. Smukler said. “That withdrawal would change the environment in the universities, in schools, at work — it would change everything.

“He said he’d request that the Soviets stop discriminating against Jews in all the state’s systems, including educational institutions. He said that he’d negotiate so that Jews would be able to maintain their own cultural activities and have their own community organizations and institutions.

“He would negotiate with them so that we would have permission to celebrate Shabbes and to practice religion.

“He said that we would get them to minimize anti-Zionist propaganda.

“He obviously was trying to check to see what we thought would happen if we could live under much more normal conditions; if we could have the right to be a Jew, which had been hijacked from us so many years before, returned to us.”

This is fascinating, but how does it remind you of Jonathan Glazer, Sasha?

“It’s because he said, ‘Listen. You are not Jews at all. You lost your Jewishness. You lost it because you live in a communist country that totally denies you the right to practice any religion. You lost it because of the Second World War — he did not use the word Holocaust or Shoah — and now all you have is warmed-over Yiddishkeit. We all know how much life the Jewish people of eastern Europe sacrificed, but unfortunately Yiddishkeit is like Atlantis.

“It just disappeared, sank into the ocean, without a trace.”

Husseini continued, Mr. Smukler recalled.

“He said, ‘You are not Jewish. You do not celebrate Shabbes. 99 percent of you are not circumcised. You have never been in a synagogue. You are 100 percent assimilated, because of World War II and the communist regime where you were born and grew up.

“You are entirely inauthentic. The only thing Jewish about you is the word in your passport. So let’s imagine that you have a choice. The word can disappear.

“That would immediately erase 99 percent of the Jewish population of the Soviet Union. If Stalin had given you that choice in the first place, the Jews would have disappeared, and you would never even know that you are Jewish.”

Jonathan Glazer clutches his Oscar after giving his speech.

And this is where the connection with Jonathan Glazer is unmissable.

“Husseini used the word hijacked. He said, ‘Your Jewishness was hijacked by the Soviet Union. You are not Jewish. The Zionists are just trying to make you Jewish to get you to Israel.

“That’s because the Zionists need more cannon fodder for their oppressive wars against Arab countries,” Mr. Smukler remembers Husseini telling them. “You are nobody. You are not Jews. You are cannon fodder.

“But we will help you, and we hope that the Soviet leadership will understand. We hope to find common ground. I will appeal to Gorbachev and to Arafat and he will talk to Gorbachev on easing political and state antisemitism and antisemitic propaganda.”

Mr. Smukler remember another argument that Husseini made. “He said that the Zionists were trying to bring us to Israel because they needed us, but that his people would fight forever. He said, ‘One day we will take back Jerusalem. We will take back our land, And one day we will be from the river to the sea, and we will become free.

“‘So coming from the Soviet Union, which can provide you with such a beautiful life, a socialist country where everyone is equal — although we understand how much you are suffering now — what is the reason to go to the state where your children and grandchildren will become soldiers, and we will kill them?’”

Obviously, the plan did not work, although official antisemitism waned dramatically around then. “We did not take it seriously,” Mr. Smukler said. “It was the beginning of the Gorbachev time, and we understood that the situation was changing.”

Eventually, 1.3 million Soviet Jews made aliyah.

“I think about Jonathan Glazer’s speech,” he said. “One idiot stands in front of millions of people and says that he is turning away his Jewishness.

“During the collapse of the Soviet Union, and when Yeltsin gave all civil rights to the Jews in Russia and Ukraine, still 1.3 million people chose to go back to Israel. They wanted to go back to their roots. Not like that fool, who wants to terminate his Jewishness.

“It’s true that for most of the Russians who came then, 25 and 30 years ago, their children and grandchildren are on the front lines in Gaza.

“And how do you hijack the Holocaust? The Holocaust is inside us, because we lost millions of people. It is a mystery why some of us survived. The Holocaust and the existence of the state of Israel is what gives us the strength to return to our Jewishness when the Soviets hijacked it from us during the 70 years of the communist era.

Mr. Smukler turned his attention to the two men standing behind Mr. Glazer. He dismissed James Wilson as “a producer wearing a pin supporting the Palestinians.”

But Len Blavatnik is another story. “He is a billionaire who is one of the most well-known Jewish philanthropists in the modern Jewish world,” Mr. Smukler said. “He and his brother, Alexander, support and finance hundreds and hundreds of projects in Jewish life. One of them, which I very much admire, is the Blavatnik Archives, which collects and preserves documents and artifacts about people who fought against the Nazis.

“He is a source of pride for all Russian-speaking Jews. Everyone knows him. His philanthropy is everywhere — synagogues, the Jewish Museum, Chabad schools. You see the huge plaques everywhere. They are the biggest sponsors of the Center for Jewish History in New York. Everywhere you go you see their work.”

(If you google “Blavatnik,” you are served a long list of major institutions that carry the name.)

“He was also a general producer on ‘Hamilton.’ And now he’s getting an Oscar with Jonathan Glazer.

“I know that he and his family are very strong supporters of Israel, and I assume that he did not endorse Glazer’s speech. But I was waiting for days for comments from Blavatnik’s office, and the only one I saw was very vague and weak. I think he had become involved in a very touchy situation.”

The response from Mr. Blavatnik’s office was: “No, he didn’t clear the speech. But he’s incredibly proud of the film and the accolades it has received and he doesn’t want to distract from the important themes of the movie.”

The film’s executive producer, Danny Cohen, who was not on stage, reacted differently. “I just fundamentally disagree with Jonathan on this,” he was widely quoted as saying. “I think the war is tragic and awful and the loss of civilian life is awful, but I blame Hamas for that.”

A few days ago, an open letter signed by more than 450 Jews involved in all aspects of the film industry (and alphabetized by first name) disagreed with Mr. Glazer too.

“We refute our Jewishness being hijacked for the purpose of drawing a moral equivalence between a Nazi regime that sought to exterminate a race of people, and an Israeli nation that seeks to avert its own extermination,” they wrote.

Back to Mr. Smukler, who still is incandescent. “I am denying what that jerk Glazer said,” he said. “It reminds me of that meeting with Husseini, who told us that it should be easy to terminate your Jewishness. To stop being a Jew. ‘We’ll help you with it. We will erase the word Jew, and you will be free.’

“But still 1.3 million Jews fled to Israel. Why? They knew that their children and grandchildren might have to fight to protect it, but they went anyway.”

“They wanted to be Jews.”

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