Challenges Soviet Jews face

THE Soviet Union's policy regarding its Jewish population is beset by contradiction. Although Jews are urged to renounce their Jewish identification and assimilate into the Soviet mainstream, official anti-Semitism propels many into stronger Jewish identification and eventual alienation from the Soviet system. The Soviet response to this contradiction is intensified intimidation and persecution.

A scurrilous anti-Semitic campaign has continued for several years in the state-controlled press and shows no signs of abating. In language reminiscent of the notorious forgery, ''The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,'' it alleges a worldwide Jewish conspiracy that includes Jewish control of the international economy, media, and armaments industry. It accuses Israeli, Western, and Soviet Jews of anti-Soviet espionage. Soviet popular fiction depicts Jews as perpetrators of various lurid crimes.

Educational opportunities for Jews continue to be restricted. Official statistics show that Jewish enrollment in higher education has plummeted 50 percent since 1969, a decline that exceeds any diminution expected from emigration or aging of the Jewish population.

Rejecting the persistent assaults on their dignity, many Jews have responded by joining informal educational groups to study the Jewish religion, the Hebrew language, and Jewish history and culture. Increasing numbers are becoming religiously observant. An additional 300,000 to 400,000 Soviet Jews have initiated emigration procedures after concluding, as did 270,000 Jews who have left the Soviet Union, that no future exists for them in the USSR. Petitions have been sent to the government and to the Communist Party, and hunger strikes have been held in support of their demands.

Soviet authorities have responded to this upsurge in Jewish identification with exceptional crudeness. Permitted emigration has dropped from a high of 51, 000 in 1979 to 1,300 in 1983. Fewer than 1,000 are likely to leave in 1984. Activists in Jewish education are subject to special harassment; four have been arrested and imprisoned in recent months, one after police agents planted a loaded pistol in his apartment and another after a narcotics-like substance was ''found'' during a police search of his residence. In the effort to threaten other activists, security agents have claimed that Jews use narcotics in their religious observance. More than a dozen other Jewish activists are in prison on trumped-up charges.

Concerned about the deteriorating situation of Soviet Jewry, nine prominent Americans sent a letter to President Konstantin Chernenko in late September requesting that Jews and other religious minorities be permitted ''to practice their religions freely and to emigrate to other nations if they choose.''

The letter carried the signatures of two former Presidents, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, and four former secretaries of state - Dean Rusk, William Rogers, Cyrus Vance, and Alexander Haig. Three Christian leaders - Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, Archbishop Lakovos of the Greek Orthodox Church of North and South America, and Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame - signed the letter too.

The position of Jews in the USSR warrants the concern expressed by such a distinguished bipartisan and interfaith group. Although, as the letter indicates , adherents of other religions also suffer official harassment in the USSR, the text properly emphasizes the position of Soviet Jews. Their situation is especially grim.Betsy Gidwitz is an analyst of Soviet Jewish affairs and problems of communism.

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