Lessons Learned: The Soviet Jewry Movement

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December 1, 2012
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Philip Spiegel

Am Yisrael chai! The people of Israel live! These words were joyously chanted by Jews in Moscow when they witnessed the Israeli flag flying in 1948.

Almost 20 years later, Shlomo Carlebach composed a melody for those words. Inspired by Jacob Birnbaum, who founded the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, Carlebach put to music three essential words of hope, and at a 1965 rally in New York, thousands of supporters joined him in singing what became the movement’s “We Shall Overcome.” Having an anthem was one of the principles of activism the Soviet Jewry movement learned from the civil rights movement.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. were kindred spirits, and both urged nonviolence as a method for political struggle. Addressing the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry in 1966, King described the oppression of Soviet Jews as “a kind of spiritual and cultural genocide.” On the other hand, the Jewish Defense League and its leader, Rabbi Meir Kahane, supported violence as an action against oppression (they perpetrated bombings of offices of companies doing business with the Soviet Union). Ultimately, the leaders of the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union (UCSJ) — an umbrella group formed in 1970 of grassroots activists from Cleveland, Los Angeles, and San Francisco — prevailed as its president, Harold Light, declared, “Confrontation? Yes. Violence? No.”

Like the civil rights movement, the Soviet Jewry movement had plenty of opportunities to make headlines through nonviolent confrontation and civil disobedience. In 1985, 25 rabbis and a Lutheran minister were arrested after demonstrating with Torah scrolls and shofars within 500 feet of the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C. After refusing to promise that they would not return to the scene of their crime, Rabbi David Oler and four other rabbis were sentenced to fifteen days in the Federal Correctional Institution in Petersburg, Va.

The movement quickly learned essential publicity tactics. For example, naming the prisoners, offering a human face and story — plastering a “Free Boris Kochubievsky” poster around a rally or in a newspaper — would get more attention than mind-numbing statistics, such as, “Some 3 million Jews are trapped in the Soviet Union” or “Only 100 Jews got exit visas last year.”

The Soviet Jewry movement did not remain parochial; it gained valuable support from Christian clergy who were moved by the Holocaust-inflected slogan, “Never Again.” The work of Christian clergy — particularly of Sister Ann Gillen, executive director of the national Interreligious Task Force on Soviet Jewry, and Father Robert Drinan, the first Catholic priest to serve in Congress — was essential. In 1973, Drinan and 318 other members of the House voted for the Jackson-Vanik Amendment that made favorable trade conditions with the Soviet Union contingent on free emigration. Support for passage of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment was vehemently opposed by the Nixon administration, which wanted no impediments to détente. Yet support for the bill came not only from activists, but also from Jews and dissidents like Nobel Peace Prize-winner Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union.

In the early years of the movement, some of the Jewish communal leadership cautioned Jewish activists to keep quiet — to not even send greeting cards to Soviet Jews. But when leaders of the UCSJ consulted with their contacts in Russia, they were emboldened by the reply, “Please send cards; we’re not afraid.”

The UCSJ encountered other issues with established Jewish organizations. They were criticized for having ties to human rights groups rather than focusing solely on support of free emigration. And Israelis were critical of the UCSJ advocacy for allowing émigrés to choose whether to go to Israel or America.

The courage of Soviet Jews, some of them who waited nearly two decades for an exit visa, combined with the perseverance of their supporters in the West, culminated in a massive rally in Washington on December 6, 1987 on the eve of the Gorbachev-Reagan Summit. Out of that summit came the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, increased bilateral trade, and a 150-percent increase in the emigration of Soviet Jews over the previous year. With the demise of the Soviet Union, 2 million Soviet Jews emigrated, the greatest Jewish exodus in history.

According to former Secretary of State George Shultz, who was a key player in that summit and a strong advocate for Soviet Jews, “The best reason to record and remember how Soviet Jews were saved is to be prepared to act again when the need arises…We must not only preach the doctrine of human rights, we must learn how actually to be our brother’s keeper.”

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Philip Spiegel, a retired electronics engineer, is a former Philip Spiegel, a retired electronics engineer, is a former board member of the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews and Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, Calif. He is the author of Triumph Over Tyranny: The Heroic Campaigns that Saved 2,000,000 Soviet Jews (Devora Publishing, 2008). More information about the subject can be found a triumphovertyranny.com.

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