November 29, 2007
Impact of Soviet Jewry drive still resonates in U.S. today
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was a student at UCLA in the late 1960s when he founded California Students for Soviet Jews. And it was his frustration with The Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles' conservative, bureaucratic approach to the émigré issue that led him to create the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews (SCCSJ) with fellow Soviet activist Si Frumkin.
In addition to successfully encouraging local synagogues to adopt refusenik families, the SCCSJ engaged in publicity campaigns that included releasing 5,000 balloons featuring the slogan "Let My People Go" when Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev visited President Richard Nixon at San Clemente in 1973, spray-painting the same slogan on the hull of a Soviet freighter, and hiring a helicopter to fly over the Super Bowl with a banner that read "Save Soviet Jewry."
Another major catalyst was the highly publicized Leningrad trials in December 1970, which handed down death sentences to the leaders of a group of refuseniks who had tried to hijack a plane from Leningrad to Israel. The punishment was commuted to hard labor, but it shocked into action 24 major American Jewish organizations. They came together in June 1971 as the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, which became the third main voice advocating for Soviet Jewry.
The National Conference often acted in concert with the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry, which under founding executive Malcolm Hoenlein -- today the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations -- launched large-scale Soviet Jewry rallies throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
But it was the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which the U.S. Congress passed in January 1975, that universalized the Soviet Jewry campaign by tying the Soviet Union's human rights behavior to its attainment of most-favored trading status with the United States.
By showing that free movement for Soviet Jews was key to the free movement of all peoples, Jackson-Vanik fit in perfectly with the foreign policies of the Reagan and Bush senior administrations, cemented Washington's support for what might have been seen as a parochial concern and gave rise to the worldwide campaign for universal human rights, culminating later that year in the Helsinki agreements that committed all nations to a certain level of protection of human rights.
All of this strengthened the American Jewish community's position in Washington, giving rise, in turn, to today's powerful Israel lobby on Capitol Hill.
Levin said the street protests of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, combined with the behind-the-scenes diplomacy of groups like the National Conference, combined to create a powerful political wedge.
"It was a raging debate within the Jewish community," he said, referring to the ongoing discussion about whether the campaign should focus on public or private tactics. "But we would not have succeeded without utilizing both."
The culmination of the campaign was a massive demonstration on Dec. 6, 1987, on the National Mall in Washington on the eve of a summit between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. More than 250,000 protesters, representing a cross-section of American Jewry, showed up on a bitterly cold morning to shout, "Let My People Go," demanding that Gorbachev open the doors to free emigration.
That happened two years later, but the wheels were set in motion that day.
"When you talk about freedom of movement, that was a direct challenge to the Soviet control system," said Feingold, who believes the Soviet Jewry campaign was a key factor leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union. "It's no accident that after three decades of agitation, the collapse of the Berlin Wall was based on the precedent of the Soviet Jewish right to emigrate."
For many historians, the Soviet Jewry campaign represented the coming of age of the American Jewish community. Its "brilliant PR, its ability to get the story out," Feingold said, is what tipped the scales and moved the struggle beyond a parochial Jewish issue to a cause the entire free world could back.
It also represented the willingness of American Jewish organizations to break ranks with Israel on a major political issue: the "dropouts," or Soviet Jews given permission to emigrate to Israel who once out of Moscow's clutches headed for the United States, Germany or elsewhere.
The Jewish Agency for Israel and its U.S. allies believed they should be forced to go to Israel, but through the 1970s and 1980s, most American Jewish groups insisted on the Soviet Jews' right of choice, a democratic value enshrined in the American way of life. However, American Jewry reversed itself two decades later.
When the mass exodus of Soviet Jewry really took off in the early 1990s, American Jewish leaders -- fearful of the social and financial burdens of absorbing such an influx and mindful of the fact that these people were not technically political refugees because Israel was ready to welcome them -- backed Israel's demand that the bulk of the immigrants be sent to the Jewish state.
Throughout the 25-year struggle, which grew in strength until the Soviet gates finally opened in 1989, American Jews may have differed over tactics and leadership for the campaign, but they were united in their goal of open emigration for Soviet Jews.
"There were a lot of headaches," Smukler admitted. "We all had different points of view. But at 2 a.m., when the meetings were over, we were on the same page. We knew what we had to do: Get them out."
No other issue since the '67 war has brought American Jews together in quite the same way, said Smukler and other activists who lived through those times. Given the complexity of the Israel-Diaspora relationship today and the growing diversity of the American Jewish community, it is doubtful that anything will.