May is Jewish American Heritage Month. At first glance, a discussion of the Soviet Jewry Movement may seem like an odd choice for Jewish American history, but the movement had a powerful effect on the American Jewish community.
While the USSR was the first nation to recognize the State of Israel in 1948, it was not long before “Zionism” in the USSR became an anathema. Soviet Jews, especially those who identified themselves as Zionists, were marked for persecution, often losing their jobs or, worse, being arrested. Even those Jews who were not Zionists or not even strongly identified as Jews, were persecuted--set apart at school, blocked from promotion, etc. After Israel’s surprising victory in the 1967 Six Day War, many Jews tried to get out, creating a population of “refusniks”-those refused an exit visa and then persecuted (many of whom were also unfairly imprisoned).
In 1964, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) was founded by Jacob Birnbaum, a Jewish activist whose family had escaped the Holocaust by fleeing to England after the Nazis had already come to power. He was assisted by students and activists, including Arthur Green, Bernie Kabak, Glenn Richter and James Torczyner. The SSSJ joined with similar organizations that had followed its lead to form the National Conference for Soviet Jewry in 1971.
These activists stealthily distributed Jewish educational materials and religious articles in the USSR. They lobbied their politicians and organized rallies. In 1987, approximately 250,000 people marched in Washington on the eve of a political summit between Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan. Their political pressure was effective, and it is reported that President Reagan told Premier Gorbachev: “You have no choice but to release Soviet Jewry.”
From the perspective of Jewish American History, the Soviet Jewry Movement marked a unique and beautiful moment of Jewish unity. And while it has been suggested that guilt over in-fighting and lack of action during the Holocaust was an underlying motivation, the fight for Soviet Jewry demonstrated the power of a unified Jewish community.
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