December 30th, 2012
09:40 AM ET
By Jessica Ravitz, CNN
If asked to name the monumental chapters in Jewish history over the past century, people are likely to name the Holocaust or the founding of the state of Israel.
Overlooked and largely unknown, especially among younger generations, is a tale that spanned decades and transcended politics, people and places.
It is the story of a campaign that began in the 1960s and demanded freedom of religion, speech and movement for Soviet Jews – and, by extension, others – who lived behind the Iron Curtain. A new group that wants the Soviet Jewry movement remembered says it belongs in history books, not just Jewish books, and can be a model for confronting human rights abuses that exist now.
Even from the early days, this was a movement that spoke to a broader audience.
In December 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about the struggle in big-picture terms when he addressed the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry.
“The denial of human rights anywhere is a threat to the affirmation of human rights everywhere,” he said. “While Jews in Russia may not be physically murdered as they were in Nazi Germany, they are facing every day a kind of spiritual and cultural genocide.”
So what was it, exactly, that drove the desire of Soviet Jews to leave?
It began with the Soviet crackdown on religious freedoms with the 1917 Russian Revolution and Vladimir Lenin’s idea that barriers should be abolished and people unified under communism, says Gal Beckerman, author of “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry.”
Matters only got worse when Joseph Stalin came to power. Though religion was sneered upon, Yiddish theater and arts – expressed in communist terms – had been allowed to thrive for a long time. Stalin, though, put a stop to that. He would eventually order the execution of 13 Soviet Jews who’d been imprisoned in what became known as the “Night of the Murdered Poets.”
Stalin was paranoid about many things, including Jews. This was only compounded after the establishment of Israel in 1948, a development the Soviet Union initially supported. But when thousands showed up to hear Golda Meir, then an Israeli ambassador, speak in a Moscow synagogue in 1948, the Soviet leader was stunned - and threatened. By the time Stalin died in 1953, Beckerman says, he was reportedly planning large-scale deportations of Jews to Siberia.
The irony, Beckerman adds, is that Jews might have fully assimilated had Stalin not required every Soviet citizen to carry an internal passport. The passports listed nationality. And while most had descriptions such as Latvian or Ukrainian, Jews were listed as Jewish, and “this allowed Jews to stay Jews,” he says.
There’d been a “stripping away of what it meant to be a Jew," says Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ, formerly the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. Under Soviet rule, “it didn’t take more than a couple generations to have organized religion under their thumb.”
Jewish schools and organizations disappeared. Though there were some “showcase synagogues,” Levin says, “even if you were allowed in, chances are you didn’t know what to do when you were in there.”
The establishment of Israel opened Soviet Jews’ eyes to the notion that there was a place they could call home. And in 1948, the United Nations issued its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, guaranteeing that people could return to the home of their nationality, which for Jewish people in the Soviet Union meant Israel.
Leon Uris' 1958 novel “Exodus,” about the establishment of Israel, was translated into Russian and became a bible of sorts for many Soviet Jews. The book became off-limits and was smuggled in by outsiders. Zionism was brewing, and the fledgling nation of Israel was eager to welcome more citizens, Beckerman says, adding that early efforts to stoke activism for the Soviet Jewry movement were born in the Jewish state.
And then came Israel's 1967 victory over its Arab neighbors. The Six-Day War “worked psychological magic” for Soviet Jews, the author says. They were emboldened, “walked with their backs straight for the first time,” and began to increasingly apply for visas to leave.
The problem was the Kremlin didn’t want a mass exodus out of the Soviet Union; such a development would leave cracks in the façade of a paradise leaders had worked hard to paint.
So, many who applied for visas were refused. These refuseniks, as they were called, became pariahs. They were shunned by neighbors, lost their jobs and apartments, faced interrogations and were even sent into exile to labor camps or prisons.
The Soviets also began to put them on public trial for charges such as treason.
In 1970, some Leningrad Jews who were desperate to leave – and had tried and failed to do so legally – plotted the hijacking of a plane. They were stopped and the Soviets, determined to make them an example, sentenced two of the plot organizers to death. This sparked an international outcry, and the sentences were commuted. But the pressure kept mounting as more Jews applied for exit visas, and more activists got involved abroad.
International diplomacy and legislation, not specifically tied to Jews, also began to work in the refuseniks’ favor. The Jackson-Vanik amendment, signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1975, made American trade with the Soviets contingent on freedom of emigration.
“It was the first time that a country’s human rights record was linked to America’s trade relationship or American foreign policy,” says Beckerman. "And it was the first time in Congress a bill passed using human rights as leverage."
Also in 1975, the Helsinki Accords were signed between 35 countries. In exchange for the West acknowledging the Soviet Union’s post-war borders, the Soviets had to commit themselves to honoring the “Declaration of Principles,” which included human rights issues such as freedom of religion. Beckerman says the Soviet regime was so proud of this accord that it printed the language in the newspaper Pravda, which gave greater ammunition to civil rights activists, both in the Soviet Union and elsewhere.
In fact, some, including the most famous refusenik Natan Sharansky, would go on to found Moscow Helsinki Group to keep tabs on how such promises were - or weren't - upheld. Inspired by this, Americans then established Helsinki Watch, which later became the international NGO Human Rights Watch.
In the United States, individuals and organizations – bearing names such as the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, the Union of Councils on Soviet Jewry, the National Conference for Soviet Jewry – kept applying pressure. Politicians grew increasingly invested in keeping human rights on the negotiation table.
Organizations such as NCSJ, the one Levin heads up now, compiled lists of refuseniks – the last book included about 15,000 names – which they presented to Secretary of State George Shultz, who served under President Ronald Reagan. Jews across the map, religiously and politically, came together for a common cause.
American activists put themselves at risk, arming themselves with contraband such as Hebrew lesson books and copies of “Exodus,” as they traveled to the Soviet Union to secretly meet with refuseniks. Sometimes, they found themselves interrogated by the KGB. And they adopted practices such as wearing silver bracelets inscribed with names of refuseniks, accessories the late-comedian Gilda Radner called “Soviet jewelry.”
On December 6, 1987, with Mikhail Gorbachev in office and reforms slowly taking hold, some 250,000 demonstrators flooded the National Mall in Washington. They arrived on the eve of the Soviet leader’s first visit to the White House.
Brandishing photographs of refuseniks and reciting chants such as, “Two, four, six, eight, open up the Iron Gate,” they rallied around the universal belief that people are entitled to basic freedoms – rights the Kremlin supported on paper but trampled on in practice. In attendance, too, were Soviet Jews who'd been lucky enough to secure exit visas, when so many others couldn't. Among them, with his parents, was a 14-year-old named Sergey Brin, who'd go on to co-found Google. He held a sign that read, “Let my people go.”
Within several years, the doors would fly open. The movement, which played a part in ending the Cold War and bringing down the Soviet Union, would eventually succeed in freeing more than 1.5 million Jews.
Sharansky, the refusenik who'd become a poster boy for the struggle, conceived of this rally after his release from prison and the Soviet Union in 1986. He went on to be an Israeli politician, author and human rights activist.
“In the history of the Jewish people, the results of the campaign for Soviet Jewry were epochal, likened by many to the biblical exodus,” he wrote in The Wall Street Journal earlier this month. “As in ancient Egypt, the desire of Soviet Jews to claim their national identity joined with a driving thirst to be liberated from bondage. In this union of identity and freedom lies an enduring lesson for Jews everywhere, and by extension for other persecuted peoples as well.”
And that’s exactly why he and others think it’s time this chapter was remembered.
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