Soviet Jewry movement

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The Soviet Jewry movement was an international human rights campaign that advocated for the right of Jews in the Soviet Union to emigrate. The movement's participants were most active in the United States and in the Soviet Union. Those who were denied permission to emigrate were often referred to by the term Refusenik.

Major activities[edit]

The majority of activities in the West were aimed at raising awareness about the lack of freedom to emigrate from the Soviet Union.

American Jewish organizations[edit]

In the United States, a number of Jewish organizations became involved in the struggle for Soviet Jewish emigration. Jewish establishment organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and the World Jewish Congress coordinated their efforts in the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry (AJCSJ), later renamed to the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ). New grassroots organizations also played an important role. Examples are the Cleveland Council on Soviet Anti-Semitism and Jacob Birnbaum's Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry.[1] Most organization kept their activities within the realm of public outreach, diplomacy and peaceful protest. An exception was the Jewish Defense League led by Meir Kahane whose members occasionally turned to violent protest.[2] The main slogan of the movement was: Let my people go.[3]

Activities, particularly demonstrations, continued year after year.[4]

Jackson–Vanik Amendment[edit]

In the early 1970s, the issue of Soviet Jewish emigration became entangled with the U.S.'s Cold War agenda. In 1972, Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson (D-WA) introduced the Jackson–Vanik amendment to the Trade Act of 1974. The amendment linked U.S. trade relations with non-market economies such as the Soviet Union to these countries' restrictions on the freedom of emigration and other human rights. Countries that restricted the freedom of emigration were unable to achieve Most Favored Nation status. The amendment passed in 1974.[5] The basis, as worded in the actual legislation, was "To assure the continued dedication of the United States to fundamental human rights."[6] By giving the Soviet Union an economic incentive to allow free emigration, it led, particularly after the Yom Kippur War, to a gradual increase in permission to leave the USSR.[7]

Raising awareness[edit]

Much of the awareness raising that American organizations participated in centered on individuals. A prominent example is the publicization of the plight of Soviet activist Natan Sharansky. His wife Avital had an about-to-expire permit to leave the Soviet Union, which she used. Both Avital and Sharansky's mother, Ida Milgrom, used publicity in cooperation with international organizations to advocate for Sharansky's right to leave: Avital from around the free world, Milgrom from within the USSR.[8][9] Another individual whose wish to emigrate was highly publicized was Ida Nudel.


The West did not become involved in the movement until the mid-1960s. One of the earliest organized efforts was the Cleveland Council on Soviet Anti-Semitism, a grassroots organization that brought attention to the plight of Soviet Jews from 1963 until 1983. It began as a study group led by three of the founding members of Beth Israel – The West Temple in 1963: Louis Rosenblum, Herbert Caron, and Abe Silverstein.[10] Though the council included prominent rabbis, pastors, priests, and city officials, many initial council members were fellow congregants. As the first such group in the world, this organization spawned other local councils and a national organization. Between 1964–69, the Cleveland council developed educational tools, such as organizational handbooks for other communities, the newsletter Spotlight, and media presentations. They also devised protest strategies that became integral to the movement to free Soviet Jewry. One of the council's most successful activities was the People-to-People program of the late 1960s, which represented 50,000 members.

Although not officially sponsored by Beth Israel – The West Temple, the temple provided office space to the council from 1964–78, and the council periodically reported to the congregation's Social Action Committee. Although the Cleveland council was still active in 1985, by the late 1970s the Jewish Community Federation had taken over the major local organizing effort for Soviet Jewry. By 1993, the Cleveland Council on Soviet Anti-Semitism no longer needed to exist, as it had accomplished its mission, and the Soviet Union had also ceased to exist.

Later, Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, was founded by Jacob Birnbaum at Yeshiva University in 1964, and grew to include students from the New York metropolitan area and beyond. In 1969, the Jewish Defense League began a series of protests and vigils while employing militant activism in order to publicize the persecution of Soviet Jewry.[11] The Union of Councils for Soviet Jews was formed in 1970 as an umbrella organization of all local grassroot groups working to win the right to emigrate for oppressed Jewish citizens of the Soviet Union.

The movement was represented in Israel by Nativ, a clandestine agency that sought to publicize the cause of Soviet Jewry and encourage their emigration to Israel.

Tensions between wings of movement[edit]

Throughout the most intense period of the movement to free Jews from the USSR – 1964–1991 – tensions existed between the Jewish Establishment groups, represented by the umbrella organization the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry and its successor the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and the grassroots groups. Differences revolved around policy and action. Generally, establishment organizations supported a more moderate approach whereas grassroots organizations preferred a more vocal approach. Behind the scenes, the clandestine Israeli Soviet Jewry office, Nativ (known as the Lishka), supported the ACSJ and NCSJ, it had helped create. Such conflicts between Establishment and nascent, independent groups – such as between the NAACP and SNCC in the civil rights movement – are not new.[12][13]

Once Jews began to be allowed to emigrate, tensions also arose between Israel and the American side of the movement over the drop-out phenomenon. Drop-outs were Jews who left the Soviet Union on an exit visa to Israel but changed their destination (primarily to the United States) once their reached the half-way station in Vienna. Israel, which needed Soviet Jews to offset demographic trends in the country to maintain a Jewish majority, wanted to stop people from dropping out. American Jewish organizations, however, supported these emigrants' freedom to choose their destination.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Orbach, William W. (1979). The American movement to aid Soviet Jews. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 0-87023-267-3. OCLC 4495649.
  2. ^ Beckerman, Gal. (2011) [2010]. When they come for us, we'll be gone : the epic struggle to save Soviet Jewry (1st Mariner books ed. 2011 ed.). Boston: Mariner Books. ISBN 978-0-618-57309-7. OCLC 694829899.
  3. ^ The New York Times wrote in their obituary about Jacob Birnbaum: "Mr. Birnbaum insisted that every rally include posters declaring 'Let my people go,' the line from Exodus 9:1 that became the clarion call of the movement."
  4. ^ "4,000 assail Soviet on plight of Jews". The New York Times. September 21, 1970.
  5. ^ Keys, Barbara J. (17 February 2014). Reclaiming American virtue : the human rights revolution of the 1970s. Cambridge, Massachusetts. ISBN 978-0-674-72603-1. OCLC 871257472.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  6. ^ 19 U.S.C. 2432(a), Sec. 402 "Freedom of Emigration in East-West Trade"
  7. ^ Paul Stern (1979). "3". Water's Edge: Domestic Politics and the Making of American Foreign Policy. Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 978-0313205200.
  8. ^ Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (May 3, 2002). "Ida Milgrom, 94, Dies; Helped Free a Son Held by Soviets". The New York Times.
  9. ^ Dennis McLellan (May 4, 2002). "Ida Milgrom, 94; Sought Dissident Son's Freedom". The Los Angeles Times.
  10. ^ "Our History". Beth Israel – The West Temple. The Cleveland Council on Soviet Anti-Semitism. Cleveland, Ohio. Archived from the original on 2015-09-23. Retrieved 2015-09-22.
  11. ^ Feingold, Henry L. (2007). "Silent No More" Saving the Jews of Russia, The American Jewish Effort, 1967–1989. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press. ISBN 978-0-8156-3101-9.
  12. ^ Beckerman, Gal. When They Come For Us We'll Be Gone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.
  13. ^ Weiss, Avi. Open Up The Iron Door. Toby Press, 2015.
  14. ^ Lazin, Frederick A. (2005). The struggle for Soviet Jewry in American politics : Israel versus the American Jewish establishment. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books. ISBN 0-7391-0842-5. OCLC 56876939.


  • Altshuler, Stuart. From Exodus to Freedom: A History of the Soviet Jewry Movement. Rowman & Littlefield, 2005
  • Beckerman, Gal. When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
  • Freedman, Robert Owen. Soviet Jewry in the 1980s: The Politics of Anti-Semitism and Emigration and the Dynamics of Resettlement. Duke University Press, 1989
  • Kahane, Meir. The Story of the Jewish Defense League. Chilton Book Company, 1975
  • Schroeter, Leonard. The Last Exodus. University of Washington Press, 1979
  • A Second Exodus: The American movement to Free Soviet Jews. Eds. Murray Friedman and Albert D. Chernin. University Press of New England, 1999

External links[edit]