Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union (UCSJ) is a non-governmental organization that reports on the human rights conditions in countries throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia, exposing hate crimes and assisting communities in need. UCSJ uses grassroots-based monitoring and advocacy, as well as humanitarian aid, to protect the political and physical safety of Jewish people and other minorities in the region. UCSJ is based in Washington, D.C., and is linked to other organizations such as the Moscow Helsinki Group. It has offices in Russia and Ukraine and has a collegial relationship with human rights groups that were founded by the UCSJ in the countries of the former Soviet Union. The UCSJ was formed in 1970 as part of the Movement to Free Soviet Jewry, a response to the oppression of Jews in the Soviet Union and other countries of the Soviet bloc.
Activities of the UCSJ include reporting on the human rights situation in countries of the former Soviet Union, assisting communities in need, providing support for asylum seekers and migrants, and exposing human rights violations and hate crimes, whether directed against Jews or other minorities in the region, such as Romani or Muslims. According to a UCSJ report in 2013 approximately 1.71 million Jews remained in the post-Soviet states at that time. The reports it produces on the situation in various countries are often presented to the US State Department.
The 2015 leadership of the UCSJ includes Larry Lerner as President, Dr. Leonid Stonov as Director, and Meylakh Shekhet as Director of the L'viv Bureau. Former presidents include Yosef Abramowitz, Pamela Braun Cohen, and Morey Schapira. Dr. Leonid Stonov has been involved with the UCSJ since before his emigration to the U.S. in 1990, when he was a prominent Refusenik and author of the first emigration law in Soviet history, which was presented to the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union in 1989. David Waksberg served as National Vice President during the 1980s.
UCSJ has received funding from the European Commission of the European Union as part of a three-year project designed to combat racism, antisemitism and islamophobia in Eastern European countries.
Today, UCSJ supporters and contributors include individuals around the world who are concerned about human rights transgressions, and the fate of the 1.71 million Jews who still reside in countries of the former Soviet Union. Those wishing to contribute have four options.
Nineteen members of the State Duma from Motherland and the Communist party have signed a letter demanding Jewish organizations be banned in Russia. The letter referred to Judaism as a religion promoting ethnic hatred and made reference to the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. In that regard, UCSJ made the following statement:
The best example of how far some members of the national parliament are willing to go to demonize minorities came in January 2005, when 19 members of the State Duma from Motherland and the Communist party signed an open letter to the Prosecutor General's office demanding that Jewish groups be banned in Russia. The letter referred to Judaism as a "Satanic" religion and made reference to the medieval Blood Libel (the belief that Jews ritually murder Christian children during Passover and use their blood to bake matzo). Russian Jewish groups—who have long ago grown accustomed to more modern-day antisemitic accusations of controlling the media, the financial system, etc.—reacted with horror to this intellectual descent into the barbarism of the Dark Ages.
Former UCSJ president Micah H. Naftalin condemned the conviction of journalist Boris Stomakhin, who was accused of hate speech:
This sentence exposes the underlying hypocrisy of the Russian government's half-hearted struggle against extremist groups and hate speech. ... This month alone, the FSB refused to investigate the distribution of a neo-Nazi hit list containing the names and addresses of human rights activists whom the authors 'sentenced to death,' a publisher of a newspaper in Ulyanovsk who publicly called for the murder of Jews got a suspended sentence, and three youths who broke the jaw and fractured the skull of the Minister of Culture of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic while screaming racist slogans were sentenced to just six months to a year in prison. You don't have to agree with Mr. Stomakhin's radical, though non-violent, views on Chechnya to see that his sentence was disproportionate and unjust.
The UCSJ alerted the public to the revival of the cult of Russian Orthodox Church child saint Gavriil Belostoksky and related blood libel accusations in Belarus , after the Belarusian state TV showed a film alleging that his ritual murder was a true story.
A branch of the UCSJ was closed by the government of Belarus as part of what many observers saw as a wider crackdown on political dissent in the region. (main article - Human rights in Belarus)
Sergei Magnitsky was a lawyer in Moscow for an international financial company. He advised the Russian authorities that the tax agents he was dealing with was stealing US$320 million from Russia. He was arrested, tortured and eventually killed by the Russian authorities. The Russian Human rights NGOs wanted to support a bill in the US Congress to punish those responsible for his torture and murder by denying them visas to the US and freezing their assets in the US. The UCSJ supported the legislation at the behest of the Russian NGOs and put together a coalition of international religious freedom organizations to petition the Congress. The State department fought against the legislation and the Jewish establishment organizations opposed the bills, until they saw that it was going to pass and then publicly supported the bills. The Magnitsky Act has been used by President Obama to punish Russia for violations of human rights today.
UCSJ was given a grant by US Ambassador to Moscow to bring together Russian pro-democracy human rights with their US counterparts to aid the NGOs in their work.
The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) granted UCSJ grants to monitor human rights violations and anti-semitism and the actions of the Russian Judicial system. The UCSJ sponsored a trip to Ukraine when the Russians were trying to take over Eastern Ukraine by meeting with high Ukrainian government officials to see if the UCSJ could help.
Meylach Schochetl heads the UCSJ office in Lviv. In addition to running a soup kitchen for the poor of Lviv and running Jewish services for the Jews of Lviv, he has taken on the task of working to protect Jewish historical sites and to fight for human rights. He has been successful in lawsuits against the authorities in Lviv to preserve cemetery sites and destroyed synagogues from commercialization. He has also been successful in pursuing actions against officials who violated the human rights of individuals.