Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Rabbi Herschel Schachter and I

I was quite active, starting in 1964, on behalf of the liberation of Soviet Jewry through Betar, SSSJ and others in America and later in Israel and England.


At a Soviet Jewry Rally in 1965 at Seward Park [I think], me at right

I participated in the May 1, 1964 demonstration across from the Soviet UN Legation in Manhattan. In November 1976 I was in Mosow for three days, meeting Sharansky, Ida Nudel, Alexander Lerner, the Beilins and others.

Much later with Natan Sharansky in Jerusalem 
at the premiere of "The Refuseniks" 
(I always preferred "Refusedniks")

Raphael Medoff now has published a new biography of Rabbi Herschel Shachter. On his life here. Here is a discussion of the book held at YU.

I appear in it, as a writer of a column (and thanks to Rebbitzen Penner for informing of that).

The background was the first International Conference on the Soviet Jewry struggle conducted in late February 1971 in Brussels. That was when Rabbi Meir Kahane was arrested on orders by Shachter (as the book proves) and his contretemps with Menachem Begin.

The quoted section appears on pages 294-297.

And by the way, it happened again at the Second Conference in Belgium in February 1976.

And without further ado, the text:

"The Jewish Free Press (Columbia University) published a 1,500-word “open letter” to Schacter and Wexler by Yisrael Winkelman [me], a Zionist student activist. Addressing himself directly to the two Jewish leaders, Winkelman began by asserting that in his seven years of Soviet Jewry activism, during which he had taken part in numerous marches, all-night vigils, meetings, and leafletting, “I have never heard your names mentioned, never saw you holding a protest sign, never marched with you nor found you doing anything for the cause of Soviet Jewry.” Winkelman went on to accuse Schacter of “lying and besmirching a fellow Jew” when the rabbi recently told the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, regarding Rabbi Kahane, “How much money does he make? What does he do with the money? I’m not saying he is a thief, but a lot of money stands at his service.” Winkelman also cited an incident in 1970, in which the national coordinator of the American Conference, Abraham Bayer, physically blocked the door at a Soviet Jewry seminar to prevent the entry of Dov Sperling, a Soviet Jewish √©migr√© who had publicly praised the JDL. A photo of Bayer standing in front of the door, with Sperling peering through the window behind him, accompanied Winkelman’s Jewish Free Press article.102

Winkelman concluded his “open letter” by challenging what he saw as a mindset among established Jewish leaders to exclude dissenting voices. He pointed to the fact that Schacter was quoted in Ha’aretz as calling the Brussels conference “my wedding,” in the context of accusing Rabbi Kahane of attempting to enter without an invitation. “Perhaps,” Winkelman wrote, “the anti-democratic procedures [in Brussels] were an expression of the ‘my wedding’ philosophy of the American Jewish Establishment that has tragically hindered and delayed the development of a true forceful protest movement.”103

Rabbi Schacter was not a writer. He delivered countless sermons and speeches over the years; he also conducted eloquent correspondence with a few close friends. But except for a few rare instances (such as his Journal-American article about his trip to the USSR), he did not author essays for the press. In the case of the Winkelman episode, however, he made an exception. 

His rebuttal to Winkelman, which extended to more than 2,000 words, was published alongside Winkelman’s critique in the Jewish Free Press. Schacter’s decision to engage Winkelman, rather than ignore him, echoed his invitation to the SSSJ hecklers at Hunter College to speak from the stage just a few months earlier. The article offered a rare look at how Rabbi Schacter handled criticism and how he perceived the Soviet Jewry struggle and his role in it.

Schacter began by objecting to what he called the “insolent aspersions” Winkelman had cast on him. “Since my various humble efforts in behalf of Jews have escaped your notice until recently, let me tell you something about myself,” he began. “When I was younger than you are today, although already a rabbi in a substantial congregation, I volunteered for active duty in the U.S. Army and served with front-line combat troops across Europe.” He then described his experiences in Buchenwald, emphasizing, “I organized Kibbutz Buchenwald and was personally responsible for transporting over 500 Jewish children” from Germany to Switzerland. Schacter continued with a summary of his 1956 trip as part of “the very first select American rabbinic delegation” to the Soviet Union. “Since then I have been constantly ‘on the road’ preaching and teaching; bringing the message of Russian Jewry; rousing and calling Jews in America and various parts of the world to focus American and world attention on the plight of Soviet Jewry.”104

If the term “since then” was intended to suggest that he had been continuously engaged in such activities since 1956, then Rabbi Schacter’s assertion was something of an overstatement. The late 1950s and early 1960s were a time during which there was little public activity in the United States, by Schacter or anyone else, concerning Soviet Jewry. But that began to change in 1963–1964, and Rabbi Schacter cited his connection to SSSJ at that time as evidence that he, like Winkelman, was critical of the established Jewish leadership. “I do share your frustration and impatience with the much maligned establishment,” he wrote. “Ask Yaacov Birnbaum how many years ago it was when I worked hard with him to organize and chair the Bronx Council to Aid Soviet Jewry, how we mounted an impressive rally on the Grand Concourse, before it became popular to do so.” He continued: “Long before I reached my present position of leadership and many times since, I marched and carried protest signs. I may very well have been marching alongside of you without our being aware of each other’s presence. Do you still question my own personal commitment to Soviet Jewry?”105

After highlighting the anti-establishment orientation of the SSSJ and the Bronx Council to demonstrate his credentials as an activist, Schacter shifted gears and declared that “it was the American Conference on Soviet Jewry – and not Rabbi Kahane and JDL – [that was] responsible for most of what has been done in America for Soviet Jewry over the last seven years.” Just in the previous five months, he asserted, the American Conference was responsible for “literally millions of pieces of materials, fact sheets, bumper stickers, posters, Passover statements, etc. and large newspaper advertisements.” He was not at liberty to disclose that he had just authorized a $1,200 behind-the-scenes payment by the American Conference to SSSJ to underwrite a one-day “Student Strike for Soviet Jewry,” in which several thousand Jewish public and private school students in New York City left their classes to hold a rally at the United Nations, followed by a march to the Soviet Mission.106

With regard to the arrest of Rabbi Kahane, Schacter wrote:

The Belgian government . . . was determined to avoid any exacerbation of Soviet feelings, which it felt might result from Rabbi Kahane’s presence and activities in Brussels. The Belgian government alone determined, therefore, to ask him to leave the country. The Conference Presidium at no time, individually or collectively, made any representations to the Belgian government about Rabbi Kahane and was in no way involved in his detention and expulsion [that was less than true YM]. No matter how many times this lie is repeated, it remains just that.107

As for the quotations attributed to him in Ha’aretz, Schacter said that his statements about Kahane were “reported in a manner calculated to convey an impression different from what was intended.” He denied that he ever called Brussels “my wedding,” and added that far from “lying and besmirching” anyone, it was “your [Winkelman’s] camp” that was guilty of spreading “accusations, allegations and calumnies” that were “totally unfounded, false and unwarranted.” Rabbi Schacter did not, however, deny or explain the barring of Dov Sperling by the American Conference’s director.108

Concerning Kahane, Schacter wrote that the Brussels conference was “not a public mass meeting,” but was restricted to “accredited delegates and individual invited guests,” and Kahane was neither. Although he and his colleagues had nothing to do with the Belgian decision to detain the JDL leader, Schacter wrote, it was clear that since Kahane’s application had been rejected prior to the conference, his decision to go to Brussels proved he intended to “create a diversion and disturb or disrupt the Conference” – an argument that seemingly justified the arrest. To defend himself against the suggestion that he had acted in an anti-democratic fashion, Schacter charged that Winkelman’s camp was no more democratic: “Why do you deem our procedure any less democratic than yours? How long would I last if I appeared at a JDL meeting to denounce its program?”109

Schacter concluded his essay by citing a statement made by Menachem Begin in Ma’ariv after the conference: “I know Rabbi Schacter well. Today again I repeat and state he is a faithful Jew, dedicated to his people, a person of whom I am fond.” Presumably such words from Begin, who was both the leader of the Israeli right and a critic of the Kahane arrest, would prove beyond a doubt to Jewish Free Press readers that Winkelman’s accusations were unfair and inaccurate. Schacter likely assumed that few American Jews would have access to the full Ma’ariv article. If they had, they might have been surprised to see what followed Begin’s praise of Schacter. The next sentence in Begin’s op-ed read: 

“Precisely because of this, I asked him how he could have had a hand in issuing [the press release condemning Kahane].”110 

Rabbi Schacter’s bitterness over the Kahane episode lingered for many years. In an interview about Brussels nearly twenty years later, he recalled “that whole sordid chapter” of “the trouble that we had with Kahane and with the JDL”:

There are still Jews in America who think that Meir Kahane was the one who awakened American Jewry to the plight of the Jews in the Soviet Union. All he did was create a lot of noise. . . . We kept following everything that was happening the Soviet Union. We were involved in organizing civilized demonstrations, not the mishegoss of Meir Kahane and his few crazy followers. [H]e made a lot of noise and got a lot of publicity for himself, and, you know people – the old story of “man bites dog” makes news, and he did a lot of things that we thought were counterproductive. [T]he real efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry, which led to the beginnings of the Soviet Jewry movement and the response of the Soviet government, were not launched by Kahane. They were launched by the organized, authentic spokesmen of the American Jewish, if you will, establishment. . . . Civilized, meaningful  demonstrations were definitely helpful. . . . Do it like menschen [gentlemen]. Not like Meir Kahane, don’t throw bombs, but with tact and with diplomacy".111

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102. “Winkelman’s Letter: Activist Scores Jewish Leaders’ Commitment,” Jewish Free

Press, May 1971, 4.

103. Ibid.

104. “Schacter’s Reply,” Jewish Free Press, May 1971, 4–5.

105. Ibid.

106. Ibid.; Marc Schulman interview with Rafael Medoff, March 4, 2019; “2,000 Public

School, Yeshiva Students Leave Classes to Hold Strike for Soviet Jewry,” JTA, May 28,

1971; “Student Strike for Soviet Jewry” (leaflet), Box 8, Folder 12, SSSJ: Richter to Bayer,

June 30, 1971, Box 8, Folder 12, SSSJ.

107. “Schacter’s Reply,” op. cit.

108. Ibid.

109. Ibid.

110. Begin, “On the Brussels Conference.”

111. Wiener Oral History interview (1989), 4–6.

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The PDF images:


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2 comments:

Ruth Jaffe Lieberman said...

Wow - you were right in the midst of history as it was being made! Thanks for sharing these important events, from a personal point of view. Amazing.

YMedad said...

Someone has to do it