ON WRITING AN ESSAY IN HONOR OF MICHAEL GELFOND’s 65TH BIRTHDAY

by Jack Minker
University of Maryland,
USA

On July 22, 2010, I received e-mail from Son Tran and Marcello Balduccini, inviting me to write an essay in honor of Michael Gelfond’s 65th birthday. Son wrote that he remembered Michael told him that he was forced out of the former Soviet Union and somehow ended up in the U.S.A.  He also remembered that I had helped several scientists to migrate to the U.S. and wondered if I helped bring Michael here and if it were true would I let them know about it as it would be an interesting story.

Although I agreed that it would be an interesting story, I had not been involved in helping Michael emigrate to the U.S.A. Since I have always admired Michael as a computer scientist and a dear friend, I accepted their invitation. Those of you who were here for NonMon@30 know of some of my work in disjunctive logic programming, disjunctive deductive databases and nonmonotonic reasoning. However, very few of those who are here know of my career in human rights for scientists, a field in which I have been active in since 1972 or 1973 through the present time. Some of you who know of this work are Vladimir, Michael, Erik Sandewall and Witek Marek. As part of several scientific organizations I maintained and published lists of computer scientists throughout the world whose human rights had been violated.  Scientists from the Soviet Union outnumbered all other countries combined. In addition I have written a draft of a book about my experiences and I knew a great deal about why Soviet Jews wanted to leave the Soviet Union and I may have contributed to some of those who eventually emigrated.

Through all the years I worked in human rights, and knowing Michael, I did not know anything about his particular circumstances. This short talk will be about my experience writing the essay. You will have to read the essay to learn about Michael’s experiences in the FSU, the few years of his becoming acclimated to his new country, his start in nonmonotonic reasoning, his impact on students and what I believe to be some of his major scientific accomplishments.

Since I knew a great deal about the situation of Jewish scientists in the FSU, I thought that would be easy to write. Indeed, before finding out details about Michael I thought I could write that part. Fortunately, I decided to wait until I heard from Gregory Gelfond, Michael’s son, who could tell me what I needed to know about Michael in the FSU. Both Gregory and I learned a great deal since he enlisted his mother, Larisa in the effort.

The situation for Soviet Jews in the FSU deteriorated after World War II. Stalin tried to wipe out Jewish culture by purges of writers, artists and musicians.  In addition, government policy placed restrictions on Jewish students attending the best schools. Faced with increasing anti-Semitism, many Jews were emboldened by the state of Israel having won the 1967 Arab-Israeli War in 6 days and looked towards Israel as their homeland. When they applied for an exit visa to emigrate from Soviet Union, they were usually refused visas and were dismissed from their jobs. Those individuals were known as “refuseniks”. Denial of an exit visa is, by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations, a human rights violation. Jewish scientists who lived in Moscow and Leningrad banded together to hold weekly scientific seminars to keep their science alive. Those who did not have jobs had to find menial occupations so they would not be branded as `parasites’ (drains on society) and thereby be sent to labor camps in remote places in the Soviet Union.

I had been Vice-chair for computer science of the Committee of Concerned Scientists starting in 1972/73. I was responsible for handling human rights violations to computer scientists throughout the world. I had never heard that Michael’s human rights had been violated. I first learned about Michael by reading his scientific papers starting in the late 1980s. In all the years knowing him, it never dawned upon me to ask him about his experiences in getting out of the Soviet Union.

What I found out by writing my essay was his story. In my experience it is atypical. Did he want to leave the Soviet Union because he was inspired by the Six Day War? No, he did not know much about Israel. Was he prevented from attending a good university because he was Jewish? No, although there was state-sponsored anti-Semitism in universities, Michael was too smart to be prevented from attending Leningrad State University. However, I learned that Michael had received his Kandidat degree (equivalent to our PhD) from the famous Steklov Institute, but had never been enrolled as a student and I assumed he must have been denied entry because of anti-Semitism. Vladimir Lifschitz, who I enlisted in my efforts to find out about Michael’s life in the FSU and in his beginning years in the U.S.A., informed me that, no, in the FSU all one had to do was to pass several written examinations and write a thesis and did not have to be enrolled or take courses. This is exactly what Michael did. I also had learned that his daughter, Yulia had experienced anti-Semitism in kindergarten and I assumed that this must have been a factor in his decision to leave the FSU, as it had been for most refuseniks, so that she would not be denied entry into the best schools. Although this was a consideration, according to Lara and Vladimir, it was not a primary consideration. Did he want to go to Israel? No, he knew very little about Israel. There went those assumptions.

In my book on human rights I had written a chapter about refusenik scientific seminars in the FSU in Moscow and Leningrad. I had contacted organizers of these seminars to assure that what I wrote was correct. I had not recalled Michael being part of the Leningrad seminar. I was correct, the Leningrad seminar first started in 1976 and Michael had emigrated in 1977. I learned that Michael applied for his exit visa in the summer of 1977 and emigrated on December 28, 1977. He had never been denied an exit visa and was, therefore never considered a refusenik. He never appeared on my list of those whose human rights had been violated, since his human rights had not been violated.

Michael did have problems because of anti-Semitism and because he openly attended a seminar organized by the famous logician Sergey Maslov at which they discussed samizdat literature, that is, underground literature, prevented from being published in the FSU. Not being able to find employment following his PhD, he taught in a high school and spoke to his students honestly and openly, when they asked questions about political matters. His teaching career was short-lived. To avoid being a parasite he tutored students in mathematics and took jobs as a baby sitter. I thought that these jobs would characterize him as eligible to be a parasite. I knew that tutoring did not prevent one from being considered a parasite, but until Vladimir told me that baby sitting was a perfectly good occupation, I had not known that Michael was not a parasite. I am sure his children will take advantage of Michael’s baby sitting skills. While he was having trouble finding a job, he contemplated leaving the FSU.

How was Michael able to get an exit visa from the FSU within a period of less than 6 months when others waited sometimes over at least a decade? Michael and Lara were visited by two KGB agents in 1977. They told him he had two options: go West (that is, emigrate) or go East (be sent to a labor camp). At that point, there was no option; they applied for an exit visa shortly after the KGB visit. It is clear that the KGB must have been instrumental in his receiving his early exit visa. However, in my experience it is rare that the KGB helps people and rare that they received their exit visas in less than 6 months. The only conclusion I can reach is that the KGB considered Michael to be a pain in the –er neck and did not need this thorn around to cause them trouble.

The lesson I learned in writing my essay is one that I learned a long time ago when dealing with human rights violations. It is important to verify your sources, even responsible ones. In all my years of experience in human rights I only made one major mistake. It came when I did not have time to verify a particular input that I received from a very responsible human rights organization, the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences human rights section. Hence, in finding out my information, I checked with both Vladimir and Lara and, not surprisingly, they differed on some items.

I will not tell you much more about the essay to appear in the Festschrift. It was a privilege for me to write my essay about Michael. I am grateful to Son Tran and Marcello Balduccini for inviting me to participate in this celebration and together with Gregory, Lara and Vladimir provided me the background I needed for the essay. It is ironic that Michael and Lara whose families had lived in Greater Russia and the Soviet Union for many generations; their parents had served valiantly in World War II; they had both received advanced scientific degrees – Michael a PhD and Lara an MS in Mathematics; were rejected from the FSU who could not take advantage of their scientific capabilities and yet complained about the brain drain caused by emigration. Michael, unwelcome in the country of his birth, was then able to thrive in a welcoming, tolerant country, open to all religions, races and creeds that accepted him and his family as full citizens whose religion was Judaism, and gave them an opportunity to use their science in the United States.  Michael succeeded in this land of freedom, where one need not be afraid to speak one’s mind openly, and became an internationally renowned researcher in logic programming, nonmonotonic reasoning, knowledge representation and reasoning, and artificial intelligence.

Misha, Mazal Tov on the honor of having a festschrift written in honor or your 65th birthday – it is well-deserved. It is my honor to have you as a valued colleague and a dear friend. Zolst leben bis ein hundert und tvanzig yahre. May you live until you are 120 years old.

1 comment for “ON WRITING AN ESSAY IN HONOR OF MICHAEL GELFOND’s 65TH BIRTHDAY

  1. Michael Gelfond
    July 14, 2011 at 9:19 am

    Dear Jack,
    thank you very much for your kind words and wishes.
    It is because of people like you that I was able to come to the USA
    and to enjoy living and working in this great country.

    I am not sure I can make it to 120 but I’ll do my best to follow
    your example and remain active as long as I can.

    Very very best,
    Michael

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