and the Struggle for Soviet Jewry
by Yossi Klein Halevi
Forty years ago, in the early spring of 1964, an imposing man in his late thirties, tall, with a Vandyke beard, a British accent, and a Russian-style fur hat, appeared on the campus of Yeshiva University in upper Manhattan, and began knocking on dormitory doors. For weeks, he went from room to room, soliciting support for a cause of which few people had yet heard: Saving the Jews of the Soviet Union.
The man, Jacob Birnbaum, had arrived in New York from Manchester, England, the previous year with the aim of convincing American Jews to rise up against what he called the “spiritual genocide” of Soviet Jewry. Only the Jews of the United States, he insisted, had the resources and connections that could make a difference. The Soviet Union was not impervious to world opinion, he told anyone who would listen. With the end of Stalin’s irrational rule, the Soviets—fearful of a rising China and desperate for technology and trade to infuse its failing economy—would increasingly turn to the United States for help, making the Kremlin vulnerable to economic pressure. With enough determination, American Jews could pressure the Soviet Union into concessions to prevent the cultural and religious extinction of Soviet Jewry. What was needed, Birnbaum insisted, was for Jews to shrei gevalt—to cry out in protest.
Birnbaum’s proposed campaign was, on the face of it, absurd. The Soviet Union was, at the time, the most powerful empire in human history, and it had declared war against Jewish identity in all its forms. An estimated three million Jews—a quarter of the world’s Jewish population—had been singled out for a state-sponsored experiment in enforced amnesia. Where other religions were permitted to train clergy in their own seminaries, and other ethnic groups were granted national theaters in their own language, Jews were denied almost all expressions of collective identity. Even the thaw following Stalin’s death in 1953 did not temper the government’s campaign against the Jews. Though 450 synagogues had survived the Stalin era, by 1963, all but 96 had been shut down by the regime. Jews were accused of undermining the Soviet economy, and some were executed after public “economic trials.” KGB spies were planted in synagogues, and most worshippers were too terrified even to speak with Jewish tourists from the West; those few who did would only allow themselves to brush up against a visitor and whisper urgently, “They don’t let us live,” or, “Why are American Jews silent?” before slipping back into the Soviet oblivion. Inevitably, it seemed, the slow smothering of Jewish consciousness would result in extinction, and nothing could be done to prevent it.
Yet if the idea of mounting a protest campaign to change the policies of an intransigent, totalitarian regime seemed hopeless, the prospect of awakening American Jewry into action seemed scarcely less so. American Jews tended to view the problem with the same detached paralysis they had felt during previous periods of trial: There was, after all, no precedent for an effective protest campaign against an anti-Semitic regime
. Demoralized by assimilation and shamed by the failure to rescue Jews in the Holocaust, American Jews had become a community on the defensive. Israel was a source of pride, of course, but prior to the Six Day War in 1967, the Israeli example did little to influence Diaspora self-perception. Many Jewish leaders clung to the classic exilic strategy of “quiet diplomacy,” seeking intercession with government officials but shunning the public arena. Nahum Goldmann, the influential head of the World Jewish Congress, advocated precisely such an approach toward the Soviet Jewry problem and warned that protests would backfire
. Leaders of the haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”) community similarly cautioned that Western protests would only make matters worse. The most strident opposition came from Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, widely perceived as an expert on Soviet Jewry because his Chabad movement maintained an underground network inside the USSR
. Opposition to a public campaign for Soviet Jewry penetrated the mainstream Orthodox community, especially its central institution, Yeshiva University.
It was against these two great forces—Soviet determination and American Jewish paralysis—that Birnbaum set himself during the spring of 1964. In a few short years, the improbable fight to rescue Soviet Jewry would come to command the attention and resources of American Jews. Within a decade, both the State of Israel and a Soviet-Zionist dissident movement, encouraged in part by the spirited example of American Jewry, would take up the public struggle as well, calling upon the conscience of the international community to pressure the Soviet regime. The movement was so successful that, by the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan made Jewish emigration a centerpiece of his campaign of pressure against the Soviets.
Historians will argue over the precise role played by American Jews in securing the ultimate release of more than a million Soviet Jews. And yet, the grassroots movement begun in America in the early 1960s possessed in embryonic form all the central themes of what would eventually become a worldwide campaign.
What is scarcely realized, however, is that this American movement owed almost all its political vision and strategic thinking to a single man. From the idea of confronting the Soviets through the vocal protest tactics of the civil rights movement; to the insistence that only the full-scale emigration of Soviet Jews, and not the easing of the restrictions they faced, could remedy their plight; to the belief in mounting pressure on the administration in Washington to put Soviet Jewry high on the international agenda; to focusing the Soviet Jewry campaign on the plight of individual refuseniks—all these were the product of Jacob Birnbaum’s efforts during the movement’s earliest years. All these ideas were first put into practice by his shoestring organization, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ), which during the 1960s set the tone for the entire American movement to free Soviet Jews.
For this reason, Richard Maass, the first chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, called Birnbaum the “conscience for Soviet Jews,” adding that SSSJ was “frequently several steps ahead of the other agencies” of organized American Jewry in understanding the nature of the struggle. The historian Martin Gilbert likewise called Birnbaum the “father of the Soviet Jewry movement”
Beyond its contribution to the freedom of more than a million Jews, the movement would bring about a major change in the way American Jews viewed themselves, giving them the confidence and political experience to take a far greater degree of responsibility for the fate of the Jews around the world. Before the mid-1960s, American Jews were reluctant to pursue Jewish causes publicly for fear of rousing anti-Semitism and jeopardizing their inroads into American society. Within the last generation, however, activism for Jewish issues has become a central feature of American Jewish life—such as combating anti-Semitism, campaigning to rescue Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s, and promoting lobbying groups such as the America-Israel Public Action Committee (AIPAC). This degree of public activism is unprecedented in the history of the Diaspora, and it may not be an exaggeration to say that it is largely a product of the Soviet Jewry movement, which trained a generation of young American Jews to believe that no threat to Jewish life and memory can go unchallenged.
All of this began, to no small extent, with one man knocking on students’ doors.
Jacob Birnbaum was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1926. His grandfather, Nathan Birnbaum, coined the term “Zionism” and served as secretary general of the first Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897
. Dissatisfied with his western European acculturated identity, Nathan Birnbaum was drawn over time to the Judaism of eastern Europe, and eventually abandoned his secular nationalism for religion, becoming secretary general of the haredi Agudath Israel. Nathan’s son and Jacob’s father, Solomon Asher Birnbaum, a leading Yiddish scholar, moved from Germany to London in 1933. During the war, he worked for the British government’s national censor, in the Uncommon Languages Department. “He read the desperate letters from Europe, so he knew what was happening to the Jews there,” his son recalled. “He tried to do what he could, but his helplessness seared itself into my soul”
Jacob Birnbaum’s commitment to Soviet Jewry was largely informed by his grandfather’s passion for eastern European Jewry and his father’s frustration at being unable to help prevent its destruction. From his grandfather’s ability to traverse European Jewry’s bitter ideological divides, Birnbaum learned to see himself as a “klal yisrael Jew”—a Jew for the whole Jewish people, drawing his identity from the totality of the Jewish experience. Though he remained an observant Jew, he shunned denominational labels, feeling at home in all Jewish camps but ultimately belonging to none.
Beyond the question of identity, Birnbaum absorbed an intense belief in the importance of public action on behalf of the Jewish people. In the 1950s, he sought out groups of teenage Holocaust survivors who had been brought to England and Ireland to assist in their process of rehabilitation. In 1962, he went to France to investigate the situation of Algerian Jewish immigrants. In a report he wrote of that experience, Birnbaum warned of a massive social breakdown, and especially of a “shocking wastage, from the Jewish point of view, taking place at the student level.” He urged the formation of a movement of Jewish students to volunteer among the immigrants and help reconnect them to the Jewish community. “A responsible body in this country should send out, on a regular and systematic basis, groups of young people to areas of need.” Such a movement, he added, would benefit not only the Algerian Jewish community but British Jewry too, creating a “cadre” of future communal leaders
. Although this vision for Algerian Jews never materialized, his call for a systematic student effort prefigured his idea of a student movement to save Soviet Jewry.
By the time Birnbaum arrived in New York, the first signs of public concern for Soviet Jewry had emerged. Since the late 1950s, the problem had been a growing topic of discussion among Jewish leaders. A B’nai B’rith delegation traveled to the Soviet Union and took the issue to the UN; the American Jewish Committee organized an interfaith appeal; several prominent American Jews, including Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, briefed President Kennedy about the Soviet Jews’ plight
. But those efforts were sporadic and uncoordinated
. Finally, in early April 1964, hopes for more concerted Jewish action were raised when the leaders of 24 major American Jewish organizations decided, with the quiet prodding of the Israeli government, to convene in Washington to found the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry. With the creation of the Conference, as it came to be known, the establishment broke with Nahum Goldmann’s school of quiet diplomacy and committed itself, in theory at least, to a vigorous campaign. Yet the establishment’s lack of political self-confidence and its ambivalence about a public campaign were built into the Conference’s very structure, and it immediately became apparent that this new body would exist mostly on paper. With no budget or permanent staff, it was confined to irregular and limited activities, like meeting with government officials or sponsoring an occasional demonstration.
Birnbaum, by contrast, called for an urgent, daily campaign that would mobilize the resources of American Jewry and draw constant media attention. He described the Conference as a “toothless, fumbling group,” which would do little to effect a real change in Soviet policy
. “We don’t need a conference,” he told his young associates, “but a struggle.”
And so, three weeks after the founding of the Conference, on April 27, 1964, Birnbaum convened the founding meeting of the College Students’ Struggle for Soviet Jewry—soon simplified to Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, or SSSJ. About 200 young people attended, most of them students from Yeshiva University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Columbia University, and Queens College. The meeting was held in the graduate students’ lounge of Philosophy Hall on Columbia’s campus. In the pamphlet announcing the meeting, Birnbaum had placed his vision in both an American and a Jewish historical context: “Just as we, as human beings and as Jews, are conscious of the wrongs suffered by the Negro and we fight for his betterment, so must we come to feel in ourselves the silent, strangulated pain of so many of our Russian brethren.… We, who condemn silence and inaction during the Nazi Holocaust, dare we keep silent now?”
From its very inception, then, these two themes defined the movement: The Holocaust as warning, and the civil rights movement as example. Those messages resonated for the post-Holocaust generation then coming of age, which Birnbaum perceived as the vanguard of a transformed and empowered Diaspora. Many of these young Jews saw American Jewry’s failure to mount a serious effort to rescue Jews during the Holocaust as a source of enduring shame. And some of them had participated in the successes of the civil rights movement, and experienced the redemptive power of public protest.
Birnbaum sought to channel these emotions into an effective public campaign. At the meeting, Birnbaum unveiled the four pillars of his strategy, all of which would later become central features of the entire Soviet Jewry movement.
The first was to rouse a dormant American Jewry, working at the grassroots level, while simultaneously pressuring the establishment to transform the Conference on Soviet Jewry into an effective organization. Only the establishment, he argued, had the resources to sustain the kind of national protest and information campaign that could change history. Second, the movement would act to humiliate the Soviet Union by exposing its false pretensions as a model society. The third goal was to pressure Washington into becoming the active protector and defender of Soviet Jews. Finally, the movement would be directed at Soviet Jews themselves, boosting their morale.
The atmosphere in Philosophy Hall, Birnbaum recalls, was “electric.” Students denounced the “silence” of the American Jewish community during the Holocaust, vowing that their response to Jewish suffering would be different. One young man, overcome by emotion, sang a protest song he had composed on the spot, “History Shall Not Repeat.”
. When several students demanded immediate action, Birnbaum mused aloud that it might be appropriate to begin the campaign on May Day, a major holiday in the Soviet Union, just four days away. In fact, he had not come to the meeting with a plan for a May Day demonstration, nor was he sure that a successful rally could be organized so quickly. Still, he cherished the students’ impatience. It was precisely that youthful American passion that he had counted on when he came to New York.
The May Day rally was organized from Birnbaum’s apartment—more precisely, from the room he was renting from Yeshiva University’s chief librarian. Posters were drawn, press releases prepared, Hillel chapters and Jewish youth groups contacted, all in that cramped space. On May 1, a thousand students appeared across the street from the Soviet mission to the United Nations in Manhattan and picketed in an orderly circle for four hours. In spite of their numbers, the protesters maintained their silence, to simulate the enforced silence of Soviet Jews.
This was not the first time American Jews had rallied on behalf of Soviet Jewry. In the early 1950s, there had been several demonstrations against Stalinist anti-Semitism. In 1962, a few dozen students from a Manhattan yeshiva high school had picketed the Soviet mission to protest the Kremlin’s ban on baking matza. But unlike those isolated demonstrations, which lacked any follow-up, the May Day protest launched a quarter-century-long campaign that would fulfill each of Birnbaum’s four strategic goals, and would end with the freedom of Soviet Jewry.
For all his relentless faith, even Birnbaum could not have imagined, on that silent May afternoon, that the unlikely campaign to save Soviet Jewry would become the most successful protest movement in the history of the Diaspora.
From 1964 until 1971, SSSJ was the only full-time Soviet Jewry organization in the United States. It tracked developments in the Soviet Union, distributed information on a daily basis, created nuclei of knowledgeable activists, and organized an ongoing protest campaign. The intensity and consistency of action that Birnbaum had initiated, and that was carried through on a day-to-day basis together with SSSJ national coordinator Glenn Richter, was unprecedented.
Immediately after the May Day protest, SSSJ’s activities began in earnest. In its first months, the group organized a week-long fast involving Jewish and Christian clergy, picketed a visiting Soviet dance troupe, lobbied the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City to adopt a Soviet Jewry platform, and widely distributed a Soviet Jewry activists’ handbook—which included fact sheets, eyewitness reports by tourists to the Soviet Union, and suggestions for creating a Soviet Jewry program in Jewish summer camps. Perhaps SSSJ’s most impressive early achievement was its October 1964 rally on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which drew both U.S. senators from New York as well as a representative from the White House—Lyndon Johnson’s special counsel, Meyer Feldman—who delivered a message of support from the president. SSSJ (known among its members as “Triple-SJ”) even generated Soviet Jewry protest songs, which resembled the protest folk music of the civil rights movement. (“There’s a fire burning brightly in the sky/and the roar of thunder crashing from on high/I see a nation there awakening/Iron chains will soon be breaking.”) From its inception, SSSJ created a Jewish version of America’s youth culture of protest. For its activists, political and cultural empowerment were inseparable.
For all it lacked in resources and power, SSSJ compensated with commitment and energy. It had no regular budget, relying instead on three-dollar membership dues from college students, the sale of buttons and other movement material, and the occasional check from a synagogue men’s club. SSSJ’s staff, including Birnbaum and Richter, a Queens College student previously involved in the civil rights movement, received no salary. Birnbaum generally worked from his home, due to health problems, while Richter ran the office, working “part-time,” as he put it—which usually meant eight to ten hours a day. In large measure, the fate of the Soviet Jewry movement in those crucial early years depended on their dedication. Birnbaum provided the vision and the tactics and maintained contacts with community leaders and politicians, while Richter organized demonstrations, printed literature, mobilized volunteers, and updated the media about developments inside the Soviet Union.
The inner circle of SSSJ never numbered more than several dozen activists. A large portion, possibly a majority, were modern Orthodox, as were most of those who came to that first May Day protest. Other activists were drawn from Zionist youth movements. Finally, there were those whom Birnbaum called “freelancers,” students without a strong Jewish background who were drawn to the Soviet Jewry movement because of a reawakened Jewish awareness and a commitment to human rights. Perhaps a quarter of SSSJ activists had, like Richter, been involved in the civil rights movement
. Birnbaum especially cherished the freelancers, because they proved one of his basic contentions: That SSSJ would save not only Soviet Jewry, but American Jewry—by kindling the Jewish passion of its youth. Even as many adult Jews bemoaned the widespread involvement of Jewish youth in non-Jewish causes, Birnbaum argued that the real fault lay with the Jewish community, which had failed to offer them an idealistic option. His antidote was the cause of Soviet Jewry.
Birnbaum predicted that the movement would be a training ground for American Jewry’s future leaders. He drew around him a remarkable group of young rabbis, most of whom would go on to play key roles in invigorating American Jewry. They included Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, who became the theologian of post-Holocaust Jewish empowerment and founder of the interdenominational group clal; the singer and neo-hasidic teacher Shlomo Carlebach, a fixture at SSSJ rallies, who composed the anthem Am Yisrael Hai (“The Jewish People Lives”) at Birnbaum’s prompting; Arthur Green, theologian of liberal Jewish renewal; Shlomo Riskin, whose Lincoln Square Synagogue became a role model for modern Orthodox revival; Avi Weiss, prototype of the activist rabbi and later a leading proponent of the Orthodox feminist movement; and finally, Meir Kahane, whose eventual split with SSSJ would lead him to found the Jewish Defense League (JDL). Each in his way helped revitalize American Jewry, for better and sometimes for worse; all received their training as activists in the Soviet Jewry movement.
In autumn 1965, I joined SSSJ. Like many of its activists, I grew up in a Holocaust-survivor family. For me, saving Soviet Jewry meant retrieving not only the last great Jewry of Eastern Europe but also the lost honor of American Jewry, whom I blamed for failing to save my own family during the Holocaust. SSSJ offered the opportunity to resolve my inner conflict as an American Jew ashamed of American Jews. The group’s slogans, which focused on our determination not to repeat the Holocaust-era sin of silence, spoke precisely to my need: “This Time We Won’t Be Silent”; “I Am My Brother’s Keeper.” Yet the very insistence of the rhetoric revealed our anxiety. Would American Jewry really act differently now? One SSSJ button asked accusingly, “Are We the Jews of Silence?”—a pointed response to the title of Elie Wiesel’s 1966 book about Soviet Jewry, The Jews of Silence.
As I soon discovered, Birnbaum was not conventionally charismatic. After the first months of SSSJ’s existence, he almost never spoke at rallies, preferring the role of mentor as well as liaison with the Jewish establishment and, later, with Washington. Birnbaum’s magnetism came from his faith in the eternity of the Jewish people and its certain triumph over evil. He filled his sentences with “you see, you see,” imploring the listener to share his vision. Birnbaum convinced me that American Jewry would indeed mobilize, that the conscience of the world would be stirred, that Soviet Jews would retrieve their identity and courage and return to the Jewish people. As with the early civil rights movement, SSSJ was moved not by rage but by righteous indignation. Hope protected us from bitterness: Soon the world would respond to our pain. We appealed to justice—to “public opinion.” Birnbaum repeated those two words so often that they evoked for me a concrete image: A disciplined and organized force waiting, in his phrase, to be “galvanized.”
Birnbaum’s words evoked revolutionary dynamism. We were not just trying to influence Moscow and Washington but were engaged in a “thrust” to those centers of power. We were not mere activists but a “cadre” aiming to “galvanize the grassroots.” Demonstrations were not only media events but also “great public manifestations” of responsibility for fellow Jews—and, no less, intimations of a borderless world in which human rights abuses would no longer be granted immunity behind an impenetrable veil of national sovereignty. Indeed, we were not a protest movement at all, but a movement of redemption.
From SSSJ’s inception, its declared goal was not to ease the plight of Soviet Jewry, as the establishment intended, but to “save” it. Birnbaum invoked the imagery of the Bible, glorifying SSSJ rallies with names like the Jericho March, the Geula (“Redemption”) March, the Exodus March. Heading the 1966 Geula March was a massive mural depicting divided waters and the words, “As the Red Sea Parted for the Israelites, So Will the Iron Curtain Part for Soviet Jews.” Whereas the Conference on Soviet Jewry spoke only of “reunification of families,” SSSJ demanded free emigration, ignoring the establishment’s fears that the utopian demand for opening the gates could compromise the seemingly more realistic goal of easing Soviet restrictions on Jewish life. Beginning with May Day 1964, Birnbaum insisted that SSSJ rallies include posters with the slogan, “Let My People Go.” He argued for summoning the redemptive force in Jewish history—a force that began with the mutual concern and responsibility Jews felt for each other. Without a daring vision, Birnbaum was saying, SSSJ’s strategy of Diaspora empowerment would fail.
By the time I joined SSSJ, its initial frantic and fragile phase had ended. The organization I discovered had moved out of Birnbaum’s bedroom and actually had an office, donated by the Jewish Theological Seminary. Its rallies had made the organization an integral part of New York Jewish life. Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the first prominent American Jews to call for a protest campaign, spoke at an SSSJ rally and encouraged Birnbaum’s efforts, lending the movement much-needed legitimacy
. Nor was SSSJ alone, as it had been during its first months, in planning its demonstrations. Birnbaum had initiated the formation of the New York Jewish Youth Council for Soviet Jewry, which brought together major Jewish youth groups; the combined efforts of the council and SSSJ drew 15,000 participants to the 1966 Passover Geula March, the largest crowd until then to attend any Soviet Jewry event
. Suddenly, it seemed that SSSJ’s dream of organizing a demonstration that would draw 100,000 Jews—the magic number we imagined would transform us into a major movement—was not so delusional after all.
Still, the gap between political reality and our redemptive vision was so great that only students and dreamers could defy it. Those were, after all, years in which the most basic facts of Soviet Jewish oppression had not yet been established. The rare media reports about Soviet Jewry usually referred to its “alleged” oppression. Even many of those who did concede the truth of our claims were not convinced that the persecution of Soviet Jewry was any worse than the Kremlin’s treatment of other religious and ethnic groups. Nor had the Zionist movement inside the USSR emerged yet, so SSSJ often seemed to be acting in a void, with no evident response from those it was trying to save.
Most painful of all was the relentless skepticism of American Jews. What proof existed, we were asked constantly, that the Soviet Union was sensitive to our protests? And even if the Soviets miraculously yielded, why assume that Soviet Jews, especially among the younger generation, even wanted to be Jewish, given the decades-long policy of enforced assimilation?
Primed by the SSSJ activist handbooks, which dealt with those very questions, I would dutifully offer proofs that the Soviets could be pressured: The suspension of the economic trials, and the shelving in 1964 of a crass anti-Semitic treatise called Judaism Without Embellishment that had been published by the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. Meager gains, to be sure, but enough to convince SSSJ activists that we had found a formula for redemption: The more protests, the more Soviet concessions. As for whether Soviet Jews still wanted to be Jewish, we cited the gatherings that began in the early 1960s in which first hundreds, then thousands of young Jews danced and sang Yiddish songs outside the last remaining Moscow synagogue on the holiday of Simhat Tora. The phenomenon was a mystery. How did they know to assemble on that night? Who dared organize them, in a society where any form of organization outside the Communist Party was illegal? Why did the Kremlin permit it? And why did they gather on Simhat Tora, hardly the most central Jewish holiday? The celebrations seemed to confirm Birnbaum’s intuition that, beneath the repression, renewal was stirring.
When critics from the establishment and the Orthodox community accused SSSJ of recklessness, we responded by emphasizing our responsibility. SSSJ prided itself on its cordial relations with the police and even with Soviet officials
. Before every rally, Richter would prepare a list of “approved slogans,” and marshals would confiscate any signs considered inflammatory. An early leaflet inviting activists to a planning meeting emphasized the tone Birnbaum sought. “We intend to keep this a highly responsible movement,” it declared. “Out of this student ferment there is emerging a wave of constructive, dynamic, yet responsible action.”
. For SSSJ, “responsible” meant not only peaceful but also legal. Even non-violent civil disobedience, which the civil rights movement and the nascent anti-Vietnam War movement had legitimized, was off limits. Birnbaum recognized that the American Jewish community could barely tolerate SSSJ’s level of protest, and that civil disobedience would frighten off the Jewish establishment and thwart the goal of transforming it into an activist force. Effecting a fundamental change in American Jewry required not just a vision and a plan, but also patience.
Limited in its ability to attract the media by its commitment to “responsible” protest, and lacking the resources to draw massive numbers of demonstrators, SSSJ compensated in other ways. Richter rented small halls for rallies and then issued press releases about overflow crowds. He set up a sound truck in Manhattan’s Garment District during lunch hour, and the papers reported a rally of thousands, not realizing that most “demonstrators” were in fact passersby, stopping briefly out of curiosity. SSSJ also drew media attention through its creative use of religious holidays and symbols. On Passover 1965, the Jericho March, led by seven men wearing prayer shawls and blowing shofars, encircled the Soviet Mission to “topple the walls of hate”; on Hanuka that year, protesters marched behind a seventeen-foot-tall menora. This was not gimmickry. Rather than manipulating religious rituals for political purposes, we believed we were revealing their redemptive significance.
SSSJ’s goal of embarrassing the Soviet regime was advanced through its “celebrations” of Soviet holidays, co-opting them to expose the hypocrisy of Communism. SSSJ’s inaugural demonstration on May Day was a classic example of turning Soviet symbols against themselves. The anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution on November 7 was another favorite time to demonstrate. One year we interrupted a pro-Soviet celebration in a Manhattan hotel, attended mostly by elderly Jewish Communists; another year, we tried to deliver to the Soviet UN mission a giant birthday cake inscribed with the words, “Let My People Go.” When SSSJ probed Soviet sensitivities, no tactic was more satisfying than mockery.
Yossi Klein Halevi is an Associate Fellow at the Shalem Center and a Contributing Editor of Azure and The New Republic.
Published in the magazine "Azur", Winter 2004