A Cold War Exo­dus: How Amer­i­can Activists Mobi­lized to Free Sovi­et Jews

  • Review
By – April 22, 2024

For Jew­ish kids grow­ing up in the Unit­ed States and Cana­da dur­ing the 1960s and 1970s, the plight of Sovi­et Jews trans­formed the abstract Cold War into lived expe­ri­ence. At the bagel bak­ery and the neigh­bour­hood news­stand, the pushke for our broth­ers and sis­ters behind the Iron Cur­tain vied with the blue-and-white JNF box. Let My Peo­ple Go” signs lined the main streets of Jew­ish neigh­bor­hoods, and Free Sovi­et Jews” but­tons were affixed to many jackets. 

In this fas­ci­nat­ing new book by Amer­i­can soci­ol­o­gist Shaul Kel­ner, we learn that none of this hap­pened by acci­dent. The Diaspora’s out­pour­ing of sup­port for the three mil­lion Sovi­et Jews trapped by what Mar­tin Luther King referred to as a kind of spir­i­tu­al and cul­tur­al geno­cide” was the result of a tour de force of mass mobi­liza­tion over three decades. 

In the ear­ly 1960s, a syn­a­gogue book club in Cleve­land, Ohio start­ed fol­low­ing reports about semi-offi­cial anti­semitism in the Sovi­et Union. Of par­tic­u­lar con­cern to the group, which would lat­er become the Cleve­land Coun­cil on Sovi­et Anti­semitism (CCSA), were the restric­tive Sovi­et emi­gra­tion poli­cies and the plight of refuseniks. These were Jews, like Natan Sha­ran­sky, who had been refused per­mis­sion to emi­grate from the USSR, stripped of their jobs and civ­il rights, and hound­ed and often impris­oned by the KGB

Fol­low­ing the exam­ple of the tire­less CCSA, grass­roots Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions — led most­ly by Jew­ish sub­ur­ban­ites and syn­a­gogue con­gre­gants — began spring­ing up all over the Unit­ed States (and Cana­da and Great Britain), even­tu­al­ly unit­ing under the aegis of the Union of Coun­cils for Sovi­et Jews (UCSJ). Few believed that they could direct­ly force the Kremlin’s hand. As Kel­ner points out, the USSR paid scant heed to its own cit­i­zens, why should the Polit­buro fold before a bunch of Amer­i­can or British or Cana­di­an pro­tes­tors?” What they could do was mobi­lize the Amer­i­can Jew­ish pop­u­lace to pres­sure major Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions to pres­sure the US gov­ern­ment to pres­sure the Krem­lin to let Jews emigrate.”

Much of that mobi­liza­tion took the form of weav­ing the plight of Sovi­et Jews into every aspect of Jew­ish reli­gious and cul­tur­al life. B’nai mitz­vah kids were twinned with twelve- and thir­teen-year-olds in places like Lviv and Sverdlovsk. Hag­gadot incor­po­rat­ed a con­tem­po­rary nar­ra­tive of oppres­sion and redemp­tion into the fam­i­ly seder. Youth groups and sum­mer camps played live action role-play­ing games in which Amer­i­can teenagers out­foxed the KGB. Col­lege stu­dents, encour­aged by the exam­ple of the Civ­il Rights Move­ment to bring their pol­i­tics to the streets” as the­atri­cal­ized, cam­era-ready protest,” led rau­cous be-ins” at Sovi­et diplo­mat­ic mis­sions. Under the noses of Intourist min­ders, pack­age-tour­ing, mid­dle-aged Jews smug­gled Levi’s (black-mar­ket gold!), pre­scrip­tion med­i­cine, and sid­durim to refuseniks, assur­ing them that they had not been for­got­ten and bring­ing back valu­able doc­u­men­ta­tion of their exis­tence to the UCSJ and oth­er umbrel­la groups. Even a decade-long boy­cott of Pep­si­Co, which began mar­ket­ing soft drinks in the Sovi­et Union in 1974, gave Jew­ish shop­pers the oppor­tu­ni­ty to turn their con­sumer choice into a Jew­ish choice” when faced with the deci­sion between Coke and Pepsi. 

It worked. Through the 1970s, Jew­ish grass­roots pres­sure on the US gov­ern­ment forced it to tie the issue of Sovi­et Jews to every­thing from trade nego­ti­a­tions to arms lim­i­ta­tion talks. The move­ment suc­ceed­ed in par­tial­ly open­ing the gates,” writes Kel­ner, “ … by turn­ing Jew­ish emi­gra­tion into a sym­bol that Moscow could use to sig­nal its desire for warmer rela­tions with the West.” From the 1970s onward, thanks to the mobi­liza­tion of Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties in places like Cleve­land, San Fran­cis­co, and Toron­to, not only was Sovi­et Jew­ish emi­gra­tion imag­in­able … it was also fea­si­ble.” And by 1991, when the Sovi­et Union col­lapsed, hun­dreds of thou­sands of Jews had already left — for Israel, for the Unit­ed States, and for Canada.

Cold War Exo­dus has real rel­e­vance in these times, as Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties across North Amer­i­ca con­tend with a pro­found­ly dis­turb­ing upsurge in anti­semitism. As we search for a coun­ternar­ra­tive of our own, Kel­ner reminds us that we have a sto­ry to tell, and that grass­roots mobi­liza­tion is an effec­tive means of telling that sto­ry. It can allow us to effect real change, and to do so in a way that is unique­ly Jew­ish. In the words of Joe Hill, the great Swedish Amer­i­can labor activist, Don’t mourn, organize.”

Angus Smith is a retired Cana­di­an intel­li­gence offi­cial, writer and Jew­ish edu­ca­tor who lives in rur­al Nova Scotia.

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