Jewish activists' Soviet dilemma. Moscow's release of Shcharansky has movement divided on whether to seek new dissident hero

When Anatoly Shcharansky walked across a Berlin bridge to freedom last month, he crystallized the tactical dilemma facing the Soviet Jewry movement. The release of the Jewish activist sparked rejoicing. But it also showed how the Soviet government can shape superpower politics and world opinion by using its Jewish citizens as pawns.

That qualifier has American activists for Soviet Jews debating a thorny question: Is it too dangerous politically to focus their energies on heroes like Anatoly Shcharansky?

It all depends on whom you ask. That's to be expected in the movement to aid Soviet Jews, which has one goal but three voices -- the radical, campus-oriented Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry; the more-populist grass-roots Union of Counsels for Soviet Jews; and the polished, diplomatic National Conference for Soviet Jewry. While not always in agreement, the groups form what one observer calls ``the best movement in the world of human rights.''

Most Jewish activists agree that Mr.Shcharansky will galvanize opinion around their cause. He endured nine years of forced labor for a crime he says he did not commit and 12 years of separation from his wife, Avital, whom he married one day before his arrest. And for many, his release shows the effectiveness of the Soviet Jewry movement, which helped Mrs. Shcharansky fight for her husband's freedom.

``We're a nation that worships heroes -- and Shcharansky is a real hero,'' says Barbara Palant, director of Boston's Action for Soviet Jewry, one of 36 groups under the Union of Counsels. She says she realizes the buzz of news media attention surrounding Shcharansky could soon fizzle out. But she feels his commitment to the movement ``will generate excitement and electricity for a long time. . . .''

That extra boost, activists say, will help the various groups organize wide-scale rallies -- perhaps even a march on Washington -- to mark the still-tentative visits by Shcharansky and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. But few people agree on what the release of Shcharansky implies for future strategy.

``A new hero has to emerge,'' says Alan Dershowitz, who served as Shcharansky's lawyer from his arrest in 1977 until his release Feb. 11. Mr. Dershowitz has worked with both the Union of Counsels and the National Conference, but is affiliated with neither. ``As was said during the Nazi period,'' he says, ``it's very important to keep a picture, a face, a name in prominent display.''

Elie Wiesel, an eloquent witness of the Holocaust who now speaks out for Soviet Jews, agrees. ``The mass is anonymous by definition,'' he whispers. ``I'm afraid of anonymity. There are 10,000 refuseniks, 396,000 who have applied for emigration, but I would focus on [longtime dissident Vladimir] Slepak because he is really the first.'' Concentrating the power of the movement on a single case not only stirs passion, he says. It gets results.

Others see serious flaws in that approach. ``I don't think we need to single out a hero,'' says Mark Epstein, national director of the Union of Counsels in Washington. ``Attention is drawn to them naturally. But Shcharansky out [of the Soviet Union] is just as effective as Shcharansky in.'' So we shouldn't rush to fill the ``vacuum,'' Mr. Epstein says.

That might deflect attention from the travesty of justice and human rights in the Soviet Union, he says. Hundreds of thousands of Jews are kept from practicing their religion; thousands of little-known refuseniks and dissidents are suffering more than ever; and emigration has slowed to a trickle.

Jerry Goodman, executive director of the National Conference for Soviet Jewry, says he thinks that by relying on famous cases, the movement could play right into the hands of the Soviets.

``Certainly there are people who surface that are special; and they help symbolize all the others,'' says Mr. Goodman.

``But quite honestly, I don't like that approach, because the Russians know anytime they want to create a celebrated case, they can do it,'' he says. ``There is a danger in having and resolving a famous case. . . . There's always a danger that it distracts from the real situation.''

Dershowitz disagrees. If the Shcharansky release causes people to lose sight of the larger problem, ``it's a temporary blindness from the tears of joy. But tears clear away quickly.''

Mrs. Palant says Shcharansky's release can open eyes to the rights abuses outside the Jewish community. ``It's not just a Jewish issue,'' she says. ``It's a human-rights issue that affects every persecuted soul in the Soviet Union.''

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