The Soviet Jewry Movement in America

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

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In 1975, the Soviet Union signed the Helsinki Final Act, an accord with the West that legitimized the Soviet’s World War II territorial acquisitions. In exchange, the Soviets had to sign on to an extensive set of human rights obligations. By agreeing to these, the Soviets had handed both dissidents in their own empire and activists in the rest of the world a potent tool. Subsequent conferences to monitor adherence to the pact, in Belgrade in 1977 and Madrid from 1980 to 1983, became international forums for publicizing the cause of specific Refuseniks and translating the issue of Soviet Jewry into the new and resonant language of human rights.

But because American Jews had effectively linked Soviet Jewry to Cold War diplomacy, when relations between the superpowers went into deep freeze in 1980, mostly due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, emigration came to a standstill. Whereas 1979 had seen over 50,000 Jews leave the Soviet Union, only a couple thousand were given permission the following year. The American movement, composed of many people who had been active for over a decade, also suffered a kind of depression at this point. The movement for Soviet Jewry had become institutionalized, with a set program of protests and standard local activities like a twinning programs that paired Bar and Bat Mitzvahs with Soviet Jewish children their age. This normalization of the cause led to a kind of stagnation, not helped by the fact that numbers kept declining and no big victories seemed to be on the horizon. 

Human Rights as Foreign Policy

This began to change with Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascension to power in 1985 after a half-decade of extremist and geriatric Soviet leaders. Though emigration hit a new low of just 500 the year he took power, his language of openness was promising. The leadership in Washington was also particularly committed to the cause. Though Jimmy Carter introduced human rights as a foreign policy issue, Ronald Reagan took enforcement of these rights very seriously, especially when it came to Communist countries. From his first summit meetings with Gorbachev, he arrived with lists of longtime Refuseniks and Prisoners of Zion that he wanted released. Reagan and his Secretary of State, George Schultz, also worked very closely with the Soviet Jewry establishment. By 1986, Shcharansky had been released early from labor camp and allowed to leave the Soviet Union, and it seemed the tide was shifting.

Anatoly Shchransky at Freedom Rally

Dec. 1987: Anatoly (Natan) Shcharansky
at the "Freedom Sunday"
March on Washington for Soviet Jewry.
Credit: National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

The Soviet Jewry movement, which had started in the early 1960s with a handful of students and outsiders, was by now a central issue in American Jewish life. Through their persistent advocacy and lobbying, the Jewish community also learned something about how to flex its political muscle. The Soviet Jewry movement strengthened Jewish identity and bridged the right-left divide that split most Jews when it came to discussions of Israel. Whether out of human rights concerns or because of more Jewishly centered ones, Soviet Jewry was an issue that united Jews 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.