The Soviet Jewry Movement in America

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

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To read about the corresponding movement in the Soviet Union, click here.

The Cold War struggle to allow Jews to leave the Soviet Union was not only fought from behind the iron curtain. The powerful grassroots advocacy movement that emerged in America played a critical role in securing the release of Soviet Jewry. In the process, it helped shape the political contours of the American Jewish community. 

Dan Resinger's Let My People Go

Dan Resigner's iconic 1969 poster.

First Advocacy Groups

The first American advocacy groups for Soviet Jewry were founded in 1964. That year, the Cleveland Committee on Soviet Anti-Semitism was started by a group of local Jews and a student organization. Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry was established in New York City by British expatriate Jacob Birnbaum, who saw the group as a way to revive Jewish life for young people. Both of these groups were far outside the Jewish establishment. In the early 1960s, the American Jewish community was increasingly prosperous and assimilated. In many ways, the Soviet Jewry movement was a form of resistance to what was perceived as a culture of complacency among the Jewish community and particularly its leadership.

In fact, when establishment leaders tried to organize around the issue of Soviet Jewry, they were largely unsuccessful. In April 1964, representatives of most of the major Jewish organizations in America met in Washington for the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry. But, in the end, the conference was little more than a symbolic gesture, and it was adjourned without providing a budget or staff for any kind of sustainable program. The issues of concern--the Soviet suppression of Jewish life and the barring of most emigration--were wholly neglected.

This spurred the two grassroots groups to further action. The small Cleveland group, led by Lou Rosenblum, a local NASA scientist, eventually joined forces with newer groups all over the country and formed the Union of Councils on Soviet Jewry. They busied themselves making contacts with Jewish activists in the Soviet Union and led local protests, trying to make the issue as visible as possible.

By the end of the 1960s, there was also a more militant force in the struggle: Meir Kahane and his Jewish Defense League. Founded in 1968, the JDL made front-page headlines when they started their publicity-catching and often violent actions on behalf of Soviet Jewry. After gaining much attention with a string of bombings in 1970 and '71 of New York buildings like the Soviet mission to the UN, they eventually fizzled out when one of their explosions killed a Jewish secretary working in the offices of Sol Hurok, an impresario who brought over acts from the Soviet Union.

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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.