For Larry Lerner, there’s a clear connection between a lonely Russian child hoping to find a home with adoptive parents in the United States in 2013, and a doggedly determined refusenik in the 1980s, dreaming of freedom in Israel.
Lerner, who lives in Warren, sees them as part of the same push-and-pull effort that engaged American Jews in the decades-long Free Soviet Jewry movement.
“You can’t get people in this country to support the fight for human rights these days,” the retired attorney told NJ Jewish News in a recent interview. “But this kind of fight is never over. You have to keep at it, monitoring what’s going on, and working to raise awareness.”
And keeping at it is what he does, as president, since 2009, of the Union of Councils for Jews in the former Soviet Union (UCSJ). One of the most important organizations in the heady struggle for Soviet Jewish emigration, UCSJ now hopes to re-engage the American-Jewish community in the broader struggle for justice and human rights in Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union.
According to the Human Rights Watch annual report, 2012 was “the worst year for human rights in Russia in recent memory,” with Vladimir Putin’s government imposing new laws to limit public assembly, restrict access to the Internet, increase fines for protesters, and recriminalize libel. Nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign funding must register as “foreign agents.”
While still keeping a close watch on the region’s remaining Jews, UCSJ has been monitoring these issues and the intimidation and killings of journalists, the rise of far-right movements, and anti-democratic trends.
UCSJ was active in the passage of the so-called Magnitsky bill, passed by Congress last December, which was intended to punish those responsible for the murder of Moscow whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky. He was arrested in 2008 after trying to expose official corruption and died in police custody a year later, before being brought to trial.
In apparent retaliation, Russia passed a law in January effectively banning Americans from adopting Russian orphans.
Lerner — who has also served in such leadership roles as president of MeretzUSA, delegate to the World Zionist Congress, and as a founding member of J Street — was one of the activists who persuaded U.S. legislators to address the Magnitsky case. He tried to engage other Jewish leaders and organizations to lobby legislators, but what worked, he said, were the efforts of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, a network that includes UCSJ as well Christians, Muslims, and Hindus.
The Magnitsky bill was combined with the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a landmark of the Soviet Jewry movement that for 38 years had withheld privileged-trade status from countries obstructing the right to emigrate. Lerner supported that repeal. In an essay in The Forward last June, as the Magnitsky fight was heating up, he called the amendment “one of the most potent weapons for defending human rights in the second half of the 20th century,” but said the time had come to change tactics. Lerner told NJJN, “It had served its purpose.”
With the fading focus on the FSU, funding has become a tougher challenge for UCSJ. While serving as a conduit to get grants and donations to over 50 human rights groups in the FSU, the organization functions on “a barebones budget,” Lerner acknowledged. He himself works pro bono, sharing the load with two people in the Washington office, director and former Refusenik leader Leonid Stonov, and associate director Maria Weissman.
That office is also providing a base for the Crisis Support Group, a recently created entity providing an Internet window for beleaguered NGOs in the FSU. Its goal is to get out information on their problems and network with government agencies; the United Nations; and other human rights, religious freedom, and pro-democracy groups abroad.
Lerner and the UCSJ have been lobbying for the Moscow Helsinki Group to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The organization’s members, which in the early days included famous dissidents like Natan Sharansky and Andre Sakharov, continue to risk their freedom by publicizing violations of the 1975 Helsinki Accords.
Rights can’t be forgotten
Lerner’s involvement with the cause of Soviet Jewry goes back to 1970s. As an intellectual law and civil rights attorney (also with a degree in engineering), he began writing legal briefs for UCSJ on behalf of Jews victimized by the authorities. He made his first trip to the Soviet Union in 1979, the first of 13 such trips. A number of refuseniks became his lifelong friends.
Over the next few three decades, around 1,500,000 Jews from the FSU managed to emigrate and go to Israel, the United States, and elsewhere. With the breakup of the USSR, efforts by the organized Jewish community in the U.S. switched to religious education, community-building, and social welfare, primarily to help impoverished Jewish seniors.
Lerner has been supportive of that philanthropy, and the UCSJ is engaged in helping the needy, but he is emphatic that human rights can’t be forgotten. Taking a pragmatic approach, he stressed that destabilized economies lead to regional insecurity.
“Heavy-handed suppression of the rule of law has the effect of discouraging capitalist entrepreneurs,” he said.
And Jews still face prejudice. While the Chabad-Lubavitch leadership in Russia has been able to maintain a close relationship with Putin, Lerner said, other Jewish groups don’t have equivalent support or protection. In places like Ukraine and Belarus, anti-Semitism is looming larger, blatantly used by politicians and touted in the media, to fuel xenophobia and violence.
He and Weissman were scheduled to testify on Feb. 26 to the independent Council on Foreign Relations, on human rights situation in Kazakhstan, passing on information gathered by a UCSJ affiliate. He wants the spotlight to be shined on the other dictatorships too.
“We’ve got to be careful about mentioning who we work with because it could be very dangerous for them,” Lerner said, “but we have to get out information about what is happening, and we need help to do that.”