The phenomenon known as the Soviet Jewry Movement (hereafter “the movement”) flourished in the United States from the 1960s well into the 1990s, and represents the zenith of mass mobilization and political influence of American Jews to date. The movement had its earliest antecedents in Magen (“Shield”), an association that originated informally in Jewish Palestine in the late 1920s to aid Jews in the Soviet Union. Magen expanded in the late 1940s to encourage emigration to Israel, thereby to strengthen the new nation’s defenses against the hostile neighbors surrounding it. But the movement attained its greatest size and influence in North America in the closing decades of the 20th century. Notwithstanding abundant internecine tensions, rivalries and outright hostilities, the movement succeeded in commanding public attention to such an extent that American foreign policy of the period was shaped – sometimes profoundly – by its force.
Anti-Semitism in Russia and Eastern Europe was nothing new. The early 12th century saw anti-Jewish riots in Kiev. Various rulers, including Ivan the Terrible in 1547 and the Empress Elizabeth in the mid-eighteenth century, attempted (though never entirely successfully) to ban Jews from Russia. With the partition of Poland and other territories in the late eighteenth century, Russia found itself once again with a large Jewish population, which Catherine the Great attempted to restrict to the newly-delineated Pale of Settlement. The tsars encouraged anti-Semitism among the non-Jewish peasantry, and over hundreds of years the exclusion, expulsion, harassment and intermittent execution of Jews eventually culminated in the massive pogroms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
State-sponsored or sanctioned persecution abated in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution, but during Stalin’s years in power (1922-1953), after a promising start, the situation of Soviet Jews once again became desperate. Synagogues and cultural institutions were closed and banned, Yiddish publication and the teaching of Hebrew were criminalized, and many religious and cultural leaders were murdered. Despite the official assertions that anti-Semitism was nonexistent in the Communist Party, the oppression of Jews continued throughout the 1950s and 1960s, with the closing of most synagogues in the USSR, routine denial of emigration, discrimination in education, jobs and housing, and the pronouncement of death sentences against “economic criminals” – who happened to be disproportionately Jewish.
The American Soviet Jewry Movement
The Soviet Jewry Movement that took root in the United States in the mid-1960s resulted from several factors. It was, of course, a product of its era, a time of many movements seeking justice and human rights, particularly the civil rights, women’s rights and anti-war movements. But it was also a direct response to lingering anguish over the Holocaust. American Jews were still tormented by the belief that they had been too passive and too assimilated during the 1930s and 1940s, and had not done enough to prevent the annihilation of six million European Jews. The cry of “Never Again!” (though most closely associated with the militant Jewish Defense League, who seized the phrase as their own shibboleth) resonated across the broad spectrum of American Jewry.
The Soviet Union was signatory to all the major international accords – including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the Helsinki Final Act (1975) – that guaranteed, among other things, the right of all people to leave their home countries. But with the exception of brief periods of relaxation in 1967, 1969, 1971 and 1979, the Soviet government’s customary response to applications for emigration visas was refusal on grounds of national security – or no grounds at all. Refusal was customarily followed by a regimen of various oppressions: demotion or loss of job, denying of medical care, withholding of higher education, “psychiatric” incarceration, confiscation of mail, and scores of other torments.
The 1970 arrest and subsequent conviction of nine Soviet Jews accused of an attempted hijacking at the Leningrad Airport raised awareness and sparked protests both within and beyond the Soviet Union. In 1972 the Soviet government imposed an emigration tax, or diploma tax, requiring that prospective émigrés repay the government for their education before an exit visa would be issued. For virtually all applicants, the repayment amounted to a prohibitive sum. Those denied the right to emigrate, for whatever reason, became known as “refuseniks”. As much as anything else, it was the USSR’s flagrant disregard of that basic human right of emigration that galvanized the Soviet Jewry Movement. “Let My People Go” joined “Never Again” as a motivating slogan.
The earliest stirrings of an organized response in the United States to the plight of Soviet Jews began with a small demonstration of yeshiva students in New York in 1962, and the creation of the grass-roots Cleveland Committee on Soviet Anti-Semitism in 1963. The more mainstream American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry, the precursor of the National Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry, was conceived in 1964, followed shortly by the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. Thus by the mid-1960s the two dominant strands of the movement – the more conservative, mainstream, Israel-identified organizations and the anti-establishment grassroots organizations that espoused emigrants’ rights to move to the United States and other countries besides Israel – were in place.
Though the organizations were diverse in their politics, philosophies and tactics, their fundamental mission was the same: to end the persecution of Jews in the USSR and to guarantee their freedom to emigrate. They came together at the annual rallies that began in the 1960s as Solidarity Day, which by the 1980s, as Solidarity Sunday, drew hundreds of thousands of protesters in New York and Washington. Though some organizations preferred back-channel diplomacy and others direct-action strategies, both wings endeavored to increase public awareness of the problem and make it a political issue.
The most visible product of the movement’s political involvement was the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, signed into law by President Ford in January 1975. The amendment tied commercial credit and Most Favored Nation trade status of any “non-market-economy” (i.e. Communist) country to its willingness to allow unimpeded emigration. By pitting the Nixon White House (which hoped for détente and large exports to the Soviet Union) against Congress (most of whose members favored a strong stand on human rights and sought the backing of their Jewish constituents) the movement organizations became powerful players in American domestic politics and foreign affairs.
So it was that the Soviet Jewry Movement became a significant factor in the Cold War, particularly in the later years, when it was a point of considerable leverage in the détente between the US and USSR. By yielding to external and internal pressure to conform to the Helsinki accords and allow its citizens freedom of movement, the Kremlin lost a critical element of control over its populace, an element that had theretofore helped to hold the country together. Along with the internal political fallout of the Chernobyl disaster, the USSR’s catastrophic war in Afghanistan and the Soviet citizenry’s escalating exposure to non-Communist ideologies and lifestyles, the movement helped lead to the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Archive of the American Soviet Jewry Movement in the collections of the American Jewish Historical Society, which comprises the records of individuals, grassroots and national organizations, constitutes the most comprehensive record in a single American repository of the U.S.-based movement to liberate Jews in the USSR from the myriad oppressions of the Soviet state. The AJHS collections are not merely local in scope but are truly national, chronicling the breadth of the movement across the United States.
These collections support other fields of inquiry as well. Immigration and United States demographics in the late 20th century are notable examples. By 1997, HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) reported that one-quarter of the Jews living in New York City were born in the former Soviet Union. These collections document the movement of thousands of Jewish individuals and families to the United States, and the economic changes and political shifts – largely to the right – that they brought with them. The interfaith movements of the mid- to late-20th century are another field of study for which these records will be useful, as Jewish organizations were joined by American representatives of various Christian denominations in the quest to end the oppression of Soviet Jews. The AJHS collections are also essential to the study of nonviolent transnational movements working to effect change in specific countries.
For further information about the AASJM please call 212-294-6160.
For a selected Bibliography on the American Soviet Jewry Movement, click here
For a list of collections and links to their respective finding aids please go to Archival Collections.