Like the Seleucid Greeks whom the Maccabees bravely fought against, the Soviet Union also sought to eliminate not the Jewish people, like Haman and Hitler tried to do, but Judaism. Indeed, the Soviet Union, as a totalitarian communist state, had a systematic policy to wipe out all traces of Jewish national expression. The Soviets sought to turn the Jews into universal communists without a distinctive identity. Thus, the Soviets put Jewish assimilationists’ in charge of teaching other Jews to hate the Jewish religion, Hebrew and Zionism.

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, “Jewish communities were dissolved and properties confiscated. Traditional institutions of Jewish education and culture, such as yeshivot and cheder, were shut down. Hebrew study was prohibited and it became forbidden to print Jewish books. […] It was forbidden to even print religious books and Jewish calendars.” Because of the Soviet Union’s anti-religious policy, many Jews got assimilated and embraced communism. Others, however, took inspiration from the Maccabees and fought back. These Jews became known as Refuseniks.

The Refuseniks, due to suffering such anti-semitic discrimination, wanted to leave the Soviet Union so that they would be able to preserve their Jewish heritage. Their plight was horrible. The Jewish Virtual Library reported, “As soon as they applied to leave, […] they were fired from their jobs; because the government is the only employer in Communist societies, it became impossible for them to find other work. Many Jews throughout the world sent the refuseniks money, a hefty percentage of which the government confiscated. Although many Refuseniks were highly educated, they often had to accept whatever jobs were offered them (for example, cleaning streets at night) to avoid being arrested as “parasites” (a Soviet classification for any able-bodied person unemployed for two months).”

One of the most famous Soviet Refuseniks was Nathan Sharansky. From 1977 through 1986, he sat in a Soviet prison camp just for insisting that Russian Jews should have the right to make Aliyah to Israel and being a human rights activist. He was falsely accused of spying for the United States. In his book Fear No Evil, he described how in the Soviet prison camp they had confiscated his Hanukkah menorah and prevented him from praying. It took a hunger strike for him to be able to light the Hanukkah menorah on the last night. In the end, it was only thanks to an international campaign spearheaded by his wife Avital that Nathan was able to get out of the Soviet Union.

Indeed, it was international pressure that would in the end succeed to get Jews out of the Soviet Union. On December 6, 1987, around Hanukkah time, 250,000 people from across the United States gathered to protest upon the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbechev’s visit to Washington, DC. This day, where protesters demanded that Soviet Jews should have the right to immigrate to Israel and the west, became known as Freedom Sunday. According to the Times of Israel, “President Reagan used the rally to urge his Soviet counterpart to ease travel restrictions for Soviet Jews. Not long after, the floodgates opened, and 1 million Soviet Jews immigrated to Israel, with another 500,000 moving to America.”

As Jews around the world celebrate the Festival of Lights and remember the Greek persecutions against the Jewish people, it is also important to commemorate the bravery of the Refuseniks whilst fighting against the modern day Seleucids.

By Rachel Avraham

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