Revisiting the American Soviet Jewry Movement
Tue, 05/03/2011
Rally on Simhat Torah in support of the movement to free Soviet Jewry,  San Francisco, 1983. American Jewish Historical Society
Rally on Simhat Torah in support of the movement to free Soviet Jewry, San Francisco, 1983. American Jewish Historical Society

In scholarship, as in all matters of taste, fashion rules. Soon after the 1989 fall of Communism, to cite but one example, the formerly overstuffed field of “Sovietology” was emptied almost entirely.

Something similar occurred in recent Jewish history. Between the late-1960s and the late-‘80s the political consciousness of American Jews focused intensely on the fate of their oppressed Soviet coreligionists. At the high point of the American Soviet Jewry movement, roughly the mid-to late 1970s, nearly every American Jewish community promoted the cause of those “Refuseniks,” harassed and sometimes even imprisoned for criticizing Soviet restrictions on emigration to Israel. American Jewish schoolchildren knew the names of prominent activists such as Natan and Avital Scharansky, Ida Nudel and Vladimir Slepak. Jewish activism achieved its most startling triumph with the passage of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which, in the face of Nixon and Kissinger’s policy of Détente, used the economic might of the United States to pressure the Soviet government to open emigration, especially to Jews.

But after the fall of Communism in 1989 this dramatic period in American Jewish activism faded rapidly. After all, the movement had achieved its major goals. Hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews were now transplanted to Israel. With the evaporation of the Soviet Union, Soviet Jewry itself was no more.

For American Jews, the movement had served important, if unacknowledged, psychological functions. The efforts of American Jews to “save” their Russian cousins helped exorcise a sense of collective guilt at the community’s perceived failure to prevent or attenuate the Holocaust. “Never Again” was the militant slogan coined by Rabbi Meir Kahane to goad Jews into adopting his radical anti-Soviet stand.

The Soviet Jewry movement also helped to channel Jews’ idealism inwardly at a time when the redemptive Civil Rights Movement had morphed into Black Power radicalism. “Roots” was now all the rage, as ethnic pride among blacks, Latinos and other minority groups supplanted integration along the lines of the old Melting Pot model. In this atmosphere, Jews could no longer direct their aspirations vicariously into the struggles of other oppressed groups. Especially after the 1967 Six-Day War, a watershed event in the raising of Jewish consciousness, American Jews would become increasingly bold and self-assertive.

The Soviet Jewry Movement provided the perfect avenue for merging all of these tendencies: Holocaust memorialization, Civil Rights activism, pride in Israel and even a return from outward assimilation to Jewish spiritual renewal.

For these reasons, the Soviet Jewry Movement became arguably the most important development in the history of post-war American Jewish life after the creation of Israel. Its passing from a central to a peripheral place in the current consciousness of Jews is therefore to be regretted. Fortunately, there are clear signs that the period of neglect is reaching an end.

The aging veteran activists in the movement are now producing memoirs at a furious rate. And recently a splendid journalistic overview, When They Come for Us, We’ll be Gone, was penned by Gal Beckerman. Not least of all the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) has been quietly amassing a treasure trove of documents on the history of the movement. Its Archives of the American Soviet Jewry Movement comprises the world’s largest collection of vital documents and photographs on this topic, including those of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews; the records of important local organizations (Boston’s Action for Soviet Jewry, San Francisco’s Bay Area Council, among many others); and countless collections of private papers and oral histories, such as those of journalist Moshe Decter and organizer Jerry Goodman (a full description, of the vast collections, including digitized documents and photographs, can be found at www.ajhs.org/aasjm).

So important does the American Jewish Historical Society regard its Soviet Jewry archives that it is now seeking to create an Institute to encourage their study, sponsor research, lectures, conferences and cultural events. It is all part of the core mission of the AJHS to “keep the story of American Jews alive.”
Intellectual fashions change, but the study of the American Soviet Jewry Movement will remain of enduring interest to anyone who cares about the ongoing narrative of human rights, Judaism and international activist politics.