The Soviet Jewry Movement in America

The fight to liberate the Soviet Jews strengthened and united the American Jewish community.

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Both Kahane's violent shenanigans and the Student SSSJ’s non-violent protest marches and vigils would have amounted to little without a series of blunders by the Soviet Union itself. First, in 1970, Soviet authorities arrested a group of Jews in Leningrad who were attempting to steal a plane and fly it out of the Soviet Union. After a dramatic trial, they sentenced two of the hijackers to death--a sentence that was subsequently commuted because of world outcry. Then in 1972, with immigration beginning to increase, partly as a response to the protests of the Leningrad hijacking, the Soviets decided to implement a diploma tax, charging any Jew who emigrated an exorbitant fee, perceived as a kind of ransom charge, in order to pay back the Soviet education he had received.

The Jewish Establishment

These two events inspired the grassroots groups to increase their activities and pushed the Jewish establishment to properly address the issue. Following the Leningrad trial, a fully funded national organization, the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, was started by a coalition of prominent Jewish organizations to coordinate the Jewish community’s response.

The answer to the diploma tax was even more dramatic. At the time President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, the key architect of his foreign policy, were engaged in a process of détente with the Soviet Union. At the center of the process was a large trade bill that would give the Soviets what their suffering economy desired, Most Favored Nation trading status. As a result of the imposing Soviet diploma tax, Senator Henry Jackson from Washington, a Democrat and fierce Cold Warrior, introduced an amendment to the trade bill that would demand the Soviets let a certain number of Jews immigrate if the country wanted the coveted trading status. The Jewish community got behind the amendment, which became known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment, in a legislative battle that lasted three years. It was the strongest exercise of political power by the Jewish community this far. And, to some extent, it worked. Though the trade bill collapsed -- the Soviets, deeply offended, walked away from it -- the end of the 1970s saw record numbers of Soviet Jews emigrating.

Freedom Raly For Soviet Jews

Sunday, October 14, 1973: Part of the 100,000
New Yorkers who participated in the Freedom
Rally for Israel at City Hall, sponsored by the
Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry.
Credit: National Conference on Soviety Jewry.

The 1970s also saw a convergence of the grassroots and establishment parts of the movement. They both staged large protests separately and together, with the establishment-sponsored annual Solidarity Sunday marches in New York frequently drawing more than 100,000 people. And both championed specific Soviet Jewish activists or Refuseniks (the term was used to describe those who had applied for exit visas and were refused) who had been persecuted above and beyond the normal loss of their jobs, known sometimes as Prisoners of Zion. The most famous of these was Anatoly Shcharansky, a young, charismatic activist whose excellent English had turned him into a crucial link with Western visitors and journalists. He was arrested, accused of being a CIA agent, and, in 1978, was sentenced to 13 years in forced labor camps. By the end of the decade he was a household name in America.

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Gal Beckerman's first book, When They Come for Us, We?ll Be Gone, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in September 2010. It was named was one of the best books of the year by The New Yorker and the Washington Post, and received both the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. He has written for the New York Times, Boston Globe, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.