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Jews in America: Soviet Jewry Movement

The protest movement on behalf of Soviet Jewry, which spread throughout the United States and other Jewish communities during the 1960s and 1970s, was in large measure a response to the Holocaust. The revelations of what the Nazis had done to the Jews, coupled with the revelations of the general inactivity and indifference of much of the Western world's leadership to their fate, left world Jewry (particularly that of America) with a deep sense of anger and guilt (the latter because of their own relative passivity during the years of the Holocaust). Thus, when news started to spread of the Soviet Union's attempts to destroy the Russian-Jewish community, American Jews were outraged and determined to do something.

Of course, the Russian government was not seeking to annihilate the Jewish community (though in the early 1960s, well over one hundred Jews were executed on trumped-up charges of economic crimes). However, the government systematically closed down synagogues and published a large number of anti-Semitic books, some of which accused Judaism of being a Nazilike religion. Cartoons of Israeli General Moshe Dayan routinely appeared in Soviet newspapers showing him wearing an armband with the Nazi swastika.

In 1964, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) was founded in New York by Jacob Birnbaum, who has headed it ever since along with Glenn Richter. Since its inception, SSSJ has been assertive in demanding the Jews' right to live as Jews within Russia, and to leave the country if they so wish. Other Soviet Jewry support groups were quickly founded around the country: Many of them eventually joined together to create the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry. In 1971, the leading Jewish organizations in the United States founded the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. And in its early years, the Jewish Defense League, headed by Meir Kahane, used to follow and harass Soviet diplomats stationed in the United States.

The combined reach of the various Soviet Jewry protest organizations was extensive. To cite one example: When Soviet performers visited the United States, whether they were a small string quartet or the world renowned Bolshoi Ballet, they were greeted by Jewish pickets demanding rights for Soviet Jews.

At first, tangible results appeared to be small. The Soviet leadership made no concessions, presumably hoping that the Jewish community would grow discouraged and give up. After the Six-Day War, however, the mood of Soviet Jewry changed markedly. Thousands, and then tens of thousands, of Russian Jews began to study Jewish history and texts, attend Simchat Torah celebrations, and apply for emigration visas to Israel. By the early 1970s, many were receiving such permission.

The Russian government, however, wanting to discourage large-scale Soviet-Jewish migration, often imprisoned leaders of the Jewish movement. These prisoners of conscience became the new focus of the international Soviet-Jewish protest movement.

Simultaneous with public protests and marches, the Soviet Jewry groups lobbied actively in Washington. Their most prominent legislative victory was the congressionally sponsored Jackson-Vanik amendment, which linked trade with Russia to freedom of emigration for Soviet Jews. The various Soviet Jewry organizations also encouraged tens of thousands of American and Western Jews to visit Russia as tourists and to spend time with Jewish dissidents.

By the late 1980s, the Soviet-Jewish protest movement had achieved far more than its founders had expected. On December 6, 1987, the eve of a summit between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, 250,000 people marched on Washington in solidarity with Soviet Jewry. The march included activists from across the U.S., and was organized by the National Conference for Soviet Jewry (NCSJ), the Council for Jewish Federations (CJF), and other smaller groups. It was expected that 150,000 or less people would attend, and the overwhelming participation sent a clear message to the Russian Premier: end the forced assimilation of Russian Jews, and allow them to emigrate from the U.S.S.R.

By the end of the 1980's the large majority of Soviet Jews applying to emigrate were being permitted to do so, and inside the Soviet Union, for the first time since the Communist revolution of 1917, a yeshiva was established. Nonetheless, the moves toward greater democratization introduced inside Russia by President Mikhail Gorbachev also guaranteed greater freedom for anti-Semitic groups. When groups such as the far right-wing, ultranationalist Pamyat started publicly propagating anti-Semitism, beginning around 1988, hundreds of thousands of Jews started clamoring to leave Russia. In early 1990, more than ten thousand were leaving Russia monthly.

Sources: Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy. NY: William Morrow and Co., 1991. Reprinted by permission of the author.
“March on Washington 1987,” Soviet Jewry