and the Struggle for Soviet Jewry

Part 2

by Yossi Klein Halevi


       Central to Birnbaum’s vision of Diaspora empowerment was the creation of a symbiotic relationship between the freest part of the Diaspora and its most oppressed. By publicly demonstrating their concern for Soviet Jews, American Jews would overcome their inhibitions and assume their place as a self-confident community within American society. The renewal of American Jewry would be an inseparable consequence of the redemption of Soviet Jewry.

       Toward that end, the Six Day War was a turning point for both American and Soviet Jews. American Jews now publicly celebrated Jewish power and suddenly longed to participate, however vicariously, in the Zionist success story. For Soviet Jews, the effect was even more profound. For many among the “Jews of silence,” Israel’s victory evoked not only Jewish pride but a willingness to challenge the Kremlin. Though there had been a nascent Zionist consciousness among some young Soviet Jews before 1967, including a lively Zionist samizdat, the war created widespread public identification with Israel. Young Moscow Jews greeted each other by covering one eye, simulating Moshe Dayan’s eye patch. For the first time since the 1920s, when the Bolsheviks destroyed the Zionist movement in the Soviet Union, Zionist circles began operating openly in major Soviet cities.

       The Soviet Zionist revolt began with a stunning act of courage by a Moscow university student, Yasha Kazakov. Shortly after the Six Day War, Kazakov wrote an open letter to the Kremlin: “I consider myself a citizen of the State of Israel. I demand to be freed from the humiliation of Soviet citizenship.” [18].

       A voice, a name: Suddenly “Soviet Jewry” was not a silent abstraction. Kazakov’s letter, exhilarating in its daring, was smuggled abroad and published in the Washington Post. A few days later, he was given a visa to Israel. With a single incident, Birnbaum’s key intuitions were confirmed. The Simhat Tora gatherings were not a fluke but a premonition. Clearly, at least some Soviet Jews wanted desperately to be Jewish and were ready to sacrifice for that identity. And public exposure in the West would protect them. Finally, as thousands of Soviet Jews began risking their freedom to apply for exit visas, Birnbaum’s insistence on emphasizing the demand of “Let My People Go” was affirmed. The Soviet Zionist renewal marked the end of what he called SSSJ’s heroic years. No longer would the organization be operating on faith and hope alone, but also on proven fact. All that remained to be tested was our resolve.

       The next letter-writer to come to the attention of the West was Boris Kochubiyevsky, a Kiev engineer. “As long as I am capable of feeling,” he wrote Soviet officials, “I will do all I can to leave for Israel. And if you find it possible to sentence me for that, it changes nothing. If I live until my release, I will be prepared to go to the homeland of my ancestors, even if it means going on foot.” [19]. Kochubiyevsky was sentenced to three years in prison. After his trial, a copy of his open letter was smuggled to the Western press. In SSSJ we were convinced that had his case been noticed by the West before his arrest, he would have gone to Israel instead of to prison, just like Kazakov. The difference in the fate of the two Zionist dissidents confirmed SSSJ’s belief in the power of public opinion. With Kochubiyevsky’s arrest, we now had our own political prisoner—a “prisoner of Zion.” Instead of protesting abstract human rights abuses like the ban on matza or the closing of synagogues, we now had a living symbol of Soviet oppression.

       The most dangerous phase of the movement had begun. Soviet Jewish activists now placed themselves in the position of a fifth column, in direct opposition to the Kremlin’s pro-Arab and increasingly vicious anti-Zionist policies. Soviet Jews moved from underground distribution of samizdat literature to overt protest, with letter-writers banding together to issue collective emigration appeals; one Hebrew teacher posted advertisements for his illegal ulpan in the Moscow subway. No one could imagine the consequences. Would the Soviets relent, crack down, or try to ignore the growing revolt? In fact, they simultaneously adopted all three approaches, giving visas to some and prison sentences to others, while consigning most of them to a “refusenik” limbo of unemployment and harassment. The policy’s unpredictability seemed deliberate. A Jew applying for a visa never knew if he would end up in Israel or Siberia.

       The fact that the Soviet Jewry struggle was no longer exclusively defined by activists in the West, but also by Jews in the Soviet Union, required new tactics and concepts. As opposed to the establishment’s call for the renewal of Jewish life in the Soviet Union, Birnbaum insisted that free emigration should now become the movement’s central demand. Moreover, SSSJ was the first to realize that the movement needed to personalize the campaign. Along with several small adult anti-establishment groups, SSSJ grasped the new opportunities to transform the movement from an abstract struggle for “Soviet Jewry” into a concrete struggle for Soviet Jews, with names and stories. SSSJ publicized individual protest letters from Soviet Jews and organized demonstrations in support of refuseniks and prisoners of Zion. Over the years, the personal campaign became an essential feature of the entire movement, drawing new recruits and energizing veteran activists. The pilgrimage to visit refuseniks became an American Jewish activist’s rite of passage; dissidents like Anatoly Sharansky and Andre Sakharov became household names among American Jews, with teenagers wearing bracelets bearing these and other names; and synagogues across America began observing the bar- and bat-mitzvas of individual Soviet Jewish children by adding an empty chair to their own congregants’ celebrations. Indeed, Birnbaum’s vision of a symbiotic relationship encouraging Jewish renewal in America and the Soviet Union became a central feature of Jewish life. American Jews were inspired by the courage of Soviet refuseniks, who in turn were fortified by American Jewish support.

       Given the dominant role that the personalized campaign would ultimately play, and its centrality to the movement’s later success, it is surprising to recall the opposition SSSJ initially faced on this issue from the Jewish establishment. The Conference on Soviet Jewry rejected the activists’ argument that Soviet Jews who exposed themselves should be known not only to the KGB but also to the West. The Conference took its cautious cue from the Israeli government’s Liaison Bureau, the secretive organization entrusted with maintaining contacts with Soviet Jews and generating international support for their emigration. Founded in 1952, the Bureau initiated Soviet Jewry documentation centers in New York, London, and Paris, and sent emissaries to meet clandestinely with Soviet Jews and provide them with material about Israel and Judaism. But the Liaison Bureau bitterly opposed the campaign to publicize the plight of individual refuseniks, fearing a backlash from the Soviets. That fear turned ugly in 1969, when the letter-writer Yasha Kazakov, along with another former refusenik named Dov Sperling, arrived on an American speaking tour. Incredibly, the Bureau warned American Jewish organizations that Kazakov and Sperling were KGB provocateurs. SSSJ and other non-establishment groups ignored the warning and enthusiastically endorsed the two men. The following year, Kazakov held a nine-day hunger strike at the UN to demand the emigration of his parents, and SSSJ activists kept vigil with him [20].

       Eventually, the Liaison Bureau recognized the power of the personal campaign and shifted its policy; inevitably, the Conference too changed its tactics. The change was publicly marked in November 1969, when Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir read from the Knesset podium the famous letter of the “Georgian 18”—heads of eighteen Georgian Jewish families who wrote, “We will wait months and years. We will wait all our lives if necessary, but we will never renounce our faith or our hopes.” [21].

       But the establishment’s relationship with SSSJ remained ambivalent, alternating between cooperation and suspicion [22]. Understandably, the establishment resented the student movement for refusing to submit to its discipline. In a sense, SSSJ represented a revolt not only against passivity and the strategy of quiet diplomacy, but also against the establishment’s right to speak for American Jews on matters of political importance. For its part, SSSJ showed contempt for the establishment’s scattered efforts, dismissing them as “do-nothing.” This surely overstated the case: The Anti-Defamation League, for example, sponsored an academic group that placed ads in The New York Times. And the Conference organized a series of nationwide protests beginning in 1964, which, though mostly small, nevertheless created an awareness of the Soviet Jewry issue around the country and demonstrated a reach that only the establishment could achieve.

       Still, as the 1960s drew to a close, American Jewry had not yet committed its vast resources to saving Soviet Jewry. Establishment efforts were chronically under-funded, poorly coordinated, and most of all, unsystematic. Indeed, SSSJ was often more effective in bringing the Soviet Jewry issue to the public than all the major organizations combined. Even after the Soviet Zionist movement began, American Jewish organizations still refused to equip the Conference with a budget and a permanent staff [23]. “Organized American Jewry places great emphasis on professionalism,” Birnbaum wrote in 1969, “yet is handling the crisis of Russian Jews in an utterly amateurish fashion. For example, there is not even a part-time staff person in daily touch with the media in our communication-conscious society.... Equally distressing, there is no central clearing-house for information and source material.” [24].

       Yet if the movement’s future still seemed threatened by establishment passivity, a new threat soon appeared from a different direction. In 1968, Meir Kahane founded the Jewish Defense League. For the first two years of its existence, the group focused almost exclusively on domestic issues, especially the growing black-Jewish rift. Then, in the final hours of 1969, the JDL sponsored a “Hundred-Hour Vigil” at the Soviet mission. Several hundred protesters rioted, while others chained themselves to a Soviet airliner at Kennedy Airport. Nothing like it had ever been done in the name of Soviet Jewry, and suddenly the movement that prided itself on responsibility and restraint had its own equivalent of the militant SDS and the Black Panthers. The violent 1960s had finally caught up with the Soviet Jewry movement.

       For Kahane, restraint meant betrayal. “He shouted at me, ‘How dare you be responsible when Jews are in danger?’” recalls Birnbaum. “I argued that so long as they’re not killing Jews, we can’t act violently, which would only alienate the American Jewish community from the struggle.” [25]. In 1966, Kahane had written an article for the Jewish Press calling for the creation of a “Soviet Jewry Liberation Front,” which would confront the Soviets with massive civil disobedience [26]. Nothing came of that effort. Only with the creation of the JDL did Kahane find the recruits for his militant Soviet Jewry campaign, which combined violence and occasional acts of terrorism, such as a sniper attack on the Soviet UN mission, with street sit-downs and similar acts of civil disobedience [27]. In Kahane’s view, the uglier the protests, the more coverage they would receive.

       From its inception, SSSJ had sought to build coalitions with sympathetic non-Jews, especially liberals. By contrast, Kahane argued that the Jews had no real friends; at best, they could form temporary alliances of convenience with non-Jews. His approach was perhaps epitomized by his bizarre 1971 connection with the Italian-American Civil Rights League, founded by renowned mafioso Joe Colombo. Civil Rights League members attended JDL demonstrations; when Colombo was shot in June 1971, Kahane was the only outsider admitted into the hospital room. Birnbaum was enraged at Kahane for sullying the name of the Soviet Jewry movement with his unsavory alliances. For Kahane, those alliances were merely the expression of the Jewish people’s fate, which was ultimately to find itself alone in the world. (Kahane further developed his theology of radical Jewish separatism after he moved to Israel later that year, and that theology became the basis for his far-Right Kach movement.) [28].

       Kahane squandered his efforts on violence and on self-defeating initiatives like the Colombo alliance. The JDL’s tactics finally resulted in loss of life in January 1972, when a secretary was killed in a firebomb attack on the offices of Sol Hurok, impresario of the Soviet-American cultural exchange. The group’s Soviet Jewry activity had lasted barely two years, and had resulted in trials, prison terms, and depletion. In the end, Kahane succeeded for a brief time in placing the Soviet Jewry cause in the headlines in a way others had not—but at the cost of exacerbating the movement’s internal divisions, and undermining the civility of debate within the Jewish community.

       The period between 1967 and 1970, then, was one of dynamic uncertainty for the Soviet Jewry movement. Soviet Jews, infused with pride over Israel’s victory and encouraged by Diaspora activism, began publicly confronting their government. SSSJ’s emphasis on heroic dissidents was adopted by both Israel and the American Jewish establishment. Yet the awakening of American Jewry, and the worldwide campaign which followed, was by no means a foregone conclusion: The establishment remained, for the most part, hesitant to invest the resources required for a full-fledged public campaign, while violent extremists threatened to discredit the cause. The powerful, widespread movement that would come later was still, at this stage, an unfulfilled vision.


       Beginning in December 1970, the vision became a reality. The Kremlin placed on trial eleven Soviet citizens, nine of them Jews, who had intended to hijack an airplane to Israel but were arrested before they reached the plane. When two of the defendants in what came to be known as the “Leningrad Trial” were sentenced to death—on Christmas Eve, no less—the international outcry was overwhelming. Two dozen governments, along with Communist parties in the West, protested, forcing the Soviets to commute the sentences. For the first time since the founding of the movement, Soviet Jewry dominated headlines. More importantly, the Soviets’ capitulation proved, even to skeptics, the effectiveness of public protest.

       Soviet Jews escalated their confrontational tactics, going from letter-writing to staging sit-ins at government buildings. The Kremlin responded with additional trials of activists, but it simultaneously allowed a substantial increase in emigration. In 1970, 1,000 Jews received exit visas; in 1971, the number was 13,000 [29]. The Kremlin’s sudden shift on emigration was in all likelihood meant to deplete the Zionist movement by sending its core activists abroad. If so, it was a serious mistake. The appearance in Israel of leading refuseniks energized the movement, imbuing it with a sense of success that encouraged Jewish agitation on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

       Indeed, the fate of Soviet Jewry now became American Jews’ chief political concern after the well-being of the State of Israel. Independent initiatives proliferated. A network of small but highly effective adult advocacy groups formed the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews. This was a crucial development: The Union of Councils would later emerge as a major force through the 1970s and 1980s, representing 32 member organizations around the United States, maintaining an office in Washington, and joining forces with activist organizations abroad, including refusenik groups in the Soviet Union. Its constituent members specialized in creative provocations—like painting slogans on the hull of a Soviet ship docked in Los Angeles and hiring a helicopter to fly over the Super Bowl trailing a Soviet Jewry banner. Like SSSJ, with which it worked closely, the Union of Councils engaged in daily, systematic activity, and played a central role in linking American Jews and refuseniks.

       The months following the Leningrad Trial also saw the peak of the JDL’s Soviet Jewry activities. Along with bombings of Soviet offices in New York and Washington, the JDL dispatched teams to harass Soviet diplomats in Manhattan, creating a crisis in Soviet-American relations. On March 21, 1971, more than a thousand young Jews were arrested at a JDL sit-down demonstration in the streets of Washington — until then, the largest number of people arrested in an American demonstration for any cause.

       Even the Conference on Soviet Jewry, which had not prepared a serious campaign in the months leading to the Leningrad Trial, intensified its public activities once the trial began. Embarrassed by the activism of the Union of Councils, SSSJ, and the JDL, the Jewish establishment finally realized that the community’s Soviet Jewry efforts could not continue to be left to the ineffectual Conference. The need to create a credible counter-weight to the JDL; encouragement from the Israeli government, which now unequivocally backed a vigorous protest campaign; pressure from Soviet Jewish activists; years of lobbying by Birnbaum—all combined to compel the Conference’s constituent groups to transform it into an organization that would mobilize the Jewish community on a daily basis.

       In late 1971, the Conference, now renamed the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, was given a full-time staff and a modest budget. In parallel, the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry was created as a local umbrella organization for establishment groups. Under the leadership of Malcolm Hoenlein, a longtime SSSJ supporter and today the executive vice president of the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the Greater New York Conference essentially implemented SSSJ’s vision of a grassroots campaign. Indeed, the communal activism that became normative in the 1970s and 1980s—from synagogue committees to massive Solidarity Day rallies—had all been envisioned by Birnbaum at the founding of SSSJ. (Even the term “Day of Solidarity” had been proposed in the early SSSJ literature.) [30]. In essence, Hoenlein successfully put into practice Birnbaum’s key ideas in the New York area, which in turn served as a model for a nationwide campaign.

       Three elements of Birnbaum’s initial four-point blueprint were now well on their way to fulfillment: The establishment was assuming responsibility for a grassroots movement; American Jews were actively encouraging Soviet Jews; and the Soviet Union was being pressured into opening the gates. All that remained was the fourth element: The “thrust” to Washington. With the introduction of the Jackson-Vanick amendment in 1972, a congressional act linking “Most Favored Nation” trade status with Soviet concessions on Jewish emigration, Congress emerged as the protector of Soviet Jews. But when the White House, outraged at the threat to Soviet-American detente, began pressuring Jewish leaders to withdraw support for the bill and warning that American backing for Israel could suffer, some establishment leaders wavered. SSSJ and the Union of Councils responded by lobbying both the establishment and Washington. “In one decade,” recalls Birnbaum, “I went from knocking on dormitory doors at Yeshiva University to knocking on doors in Congress.” [31]. SSSJ and the Union of Councils enlisted refuseniks for the lobbying effort, with the aim of embarrassing American Jewish leaders into supporting the amendment. In April 1973, more than one hundred prominent refuseniks signed an appeal to American Jewish leaders not to abandon the Jackson-Vanick amendment. The alliance between refuseniks and American activists over Jackson-Vanick was a milestone in the relationship between American and Soviet Jews. In large measure, it was that joint effort that helped the establishment to hold firm. The amendment was passed into law by Congress in January 1975.

       With the Jackson-Vanick amendment, the Soviet Jewry movement had come of age. For American Jews, it was a stunning example of their capacity to influence international politics on behalf of their people—a powerful reversal of the failures of the Holocaust [32]. For Soviet Jewry activists, it meant the fulfillment of their vision, mobilizing both the Jewish establishment and Washington for the rescue of Soviet Jews.

       The American Jewish establishment continued to treat SSSJ as a tolerated stepchild. Still, the establishment did assume the leadership of the Soviet Jewry movement, just as Birnbaum had always insisted it must. Through the 1980s, both the Greater New York Conference and the National Conference operated a daily campaign aimed at local Jewish communities, the media, and Washington. The culminating moment of the Soviet Jewry movement occurred on December 6, 1987, when a quarter million people—the largest number ever to attend a Soviet Jewry demonstration—gathered in Washington to protest the imminent visit of Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. Only the establishment could have managed it. Jacob Birnbaum, whose determination and dreams had created this moment, sat silent and unrecognized among the many dignitaries and guests of honor on the stage.


       April 27, 2004, will mark forty years since the founding of SSSJ and the grassroots Soviet Jewry movement. Jacob Birnbaum, now 77 and ailing, nevertheless remains active, working from his home in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, with the same phone number that appeared on SSSJ stationery in the early years. He advises the American Association for Jews from the USSR and promotes Jewish educational projects in Israel for immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Yet most Soviet Jews do not know the name of the man who launched the movement for their freedom. Nor do most American Jews recall the man who transformed their community. Others, of course, have a share in the credit—the refuseniks, American activists and political leaders, the establishment Conference on Soviet Jewry, and, not least, the government of Israel and its Liaison Bureau. But it was Jacob Birnbaum who was first to declare, “Let my people go,” and to translate that longing into a systematic campaign.

       For all its internal disagreements, the Soviet Jewry movement accomplished precisely what it set out to achieve, initiating a worldwide public campaign to save Eastern Europe’s last great Jewish community from extinction. More than a million Soviet immigrants came to Israel in two waves—around 200,000 during the 1970s, and the rest beginning in 1989. Undoubtedly, the mass migration to Israel in the 1990s owes a great debt to the Soviet Jewry movement of the 1960s. Though opening the gates of the USSR in 1989 was part of an internal process within Soviet society, the emigration to Israel was not a foregone conclusion. Most Soviet Zionist activists, after all, had already left in the first wave of emigration in the 1970s, and those Jews who remained behind were generally lacking in Jewish national sentiment. But the presence of relatives and friends in Israel who had left two decades earlier helped convince many Soviet Jews to consider the Jewish state a credible destination. And that first Soviet immigration in the early 1970s was, in large part, a result of the campaign mounted by American activists through the 1960s.

       SSSJ’s early critics, who warned that the movement could never succeed, were right in one sense: Without the uprising of Soviet Jews themselves, the movement would almost certainly have remained marginal, perhaps forcing some minor concessions from the Kremlin but fundamentally unable to reverse the policy of forced assimilation. As a protest movement aimed at a foreign power, the campaign’s success depended on the emergence of a Soviet Zionist movement to generate domestic pressure. However, SSSJ was the first organization to recognize the importance of individual dissidents and broadcast their voices in the West. In the process, it prepared American Jewry for the moment when a broader Soviet Jewish awakening would require Western protection, thereby insuring its success.

       A generation later, the massive immigration of Russian-speaking Jews has transformed Israeli society, infusing the country with talent and energy. But arguably a no less powerful transformation has occurred among American Jews. The Soviet Jewry movement roused them from their passivity, and taught them how to fight a Diaspora-generated struggle and experience victory—not vicariously through Israeli heroism, but as active partners in their people’s fate. American Jews came to see themselves as a major force for Jewish freedom and security, protecting endangered Jews through political means, just as Israel did through military means. In its struggle for the freedom of Soviet Jews, American Jewry liberated itself as well.

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

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