Decades-long fight for Jewish freedom remembered
While Jews struggled to leave the Soviet Union for Israel and the West, American activists joined in the human rights battle.
December 30th, 2012
09:40 AM ET

Decades-long fight for Jewish freedom remembered

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.”

Defying the KGB: How a forgotten movement freed a people

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.

Read personal stories of interrogation and imprisonment

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.

Chart showing number of exit visas given to Soviet Jews from 1967 to 2005
After 2005, emigration was all but assured. Numbers have remained in the low thousands, says Mark Levin of NCSJ.

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.

- CNN Writer/Producer

Filed under: Foreign policy • History • Immigration • Israel • Judaism • Persecution • Russia

soundoff (166 Responses)
  1. Earl

    May the Jewish people read the message of God in the Bible that was being explained in the main page of the site: http://www.thename.ph

    They have to read it to know God's message for them as written in the Bible. This concerns their Salvation.

    May the other peoples of the world read it too so that they will know why God does not answer their prayers of peace and why God allows such deadly calamities to happen.

    December 30, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
  2. alsatian in oklahoma

    But you're right when you "say" jews cannot be atheist!... Yes they "acted" like atheist but it was for to punish Russian People and Ukrainians (freemacon was a pure anti-religious and anti-royalist organisation)... the Bolchevic revolution was at 100% Jewish! (the 1st people-commissaria was 100% Jew!)... Lenin was 1/4 Jew and "elected" by J.Schiff as a leader. 75% of Kommissars were Jews and 100% of them Comintern Kommissars (ambassador). Stalin was not jew but surrounded by them at a highest level, because of great purge, it was killed by Beria! ... Sorry for my English but i'am Alsatian and yes, we fought under the German uniform.

    December 30, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • alsatian in oklahoma

      I have to tell, i'am NOT ANTISEMITIC!.....NOT!...A lot of French jews are sick of ww2 stories!... I have to say to you that i'am proud to have the real 1st Jewish community pro-nationalist (pro-occident-French).. THE UNION OF FRENCH JEWS
      god bless them!

      December 30, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
  3. Mohammad A Dar

    I hear God speak, am I going crazy?

    December 30, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
  4. scoot1073

    The Gulag Archipelago II was written by Nobel Prize Winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
    Pictured on page 79 of the Gulag Archipelago II are the leading administrators of the GREATEST KILLING MACHINE in the history of the world, the "gulags", where 66 million Eastern European Christians were exterminated.
    They are Aron Solts, Yakov Rappoport, Lazar Kogan, Matvei Berman, Genrikh Yagoda, and Naftaly Frenkel.
    "God's Chosen" have brought more death, destruction, misery and cruelty to humanity than any other race of people.

    December 30, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
  5. Apple Bush

    I know I posted this yesterday, but I want the Christians to understand the absurdity of their religion.

    Here is a snap shot of my life. Now, the Christians will respond that I should ask God into my heart and heal me. However, the obvious conclusion is God is a completely evil asshole. Why do you assume God is good? God's have traditionally always been evil and vindictive, Ours is certainly no different. You worship Satan idiots! I don't! I just bend over and say thank you sir may I have another.

    Fuck God!

    Apple's Happy Life:

    1. No Father to raise me and cultivate my talent. I could have been a lion.
    2. Step Father committed Suicide.
    3. My retarded stepfather was a bully and a pedophile and married his cousin in incest, and kept porn in the bathroom for my sister and I to find.
    4. Attempted murder in living room. Cleaned the blood and chased off the perp.
    5. My sister sexually molested by step dad.
    6. I was tortured and bullied by step dad.
    7. Bullied by Jay R. in high school. Cracked sternum that took two years to heal. Constant fear and attempted murder at the abandoned swimming pool.
    8. Red necks attacked me with knives and tried to cut of my hair but I was able to escape.
    9. Almost died from alcohol poisoning during the Charmaine year.
    10. Sexually molested by Fred Newman. He molested many young boys and was celebrated. I reported it many times but no action was filed.
    11. Forced to skinny dip with Fred Newman on outing to Missouri. This was a yearly event.
    12. Bullied by Jr. High School football coach.
    13. Raised by an alcoholic mother.
    14. Turned into a drinking buddy by an alcoholic father.
    15. Almost kidnapped but for my sister’s quick thinking. Standard creepy man in a dark van with candy.
    16. Fear. Every time my step father came home he would bully and torture me (wacked on the back of the head for example, verbally abused, etc.)
    17. Our bunnies had their feet gnawed off by feral dogs and bleed to death.
    18. My wife committed adultery. Fucked another man. Never even seeked therapy. 23 years we were together. Every memory. Every vacation I lived for. Destroyed. The best years of my life shit on by my wife. She was what kept me sane. Then she destroyed me. You can have her.
    19. My mother loves my wife more than me. She is dead to me. They both are.
    20. I have been a chronic depressive for over 20 years. Art, Music, Design. That kept me sane.
    21. Misidentified by the idiot Kauaii’police and had a hand gun pointed at my temple.
    22. Inches from being decapitated by a high captain in Hawaii. The red marks did not go away for a week.
    24. Crashed my care in a drunken stupor driving to a Ted Nugent concert and almost killed me and 3 friends.
    25. My neighbors across the street were playing with a loaded gun and the one brother killed his brother by accident. He was taken to state hospital. We were all friends.
    26. Where I grew up, kids were playing on the train tracks and a kid got severed in half. Horrifying.

    P.S. The Republicans have taken stupid to a new level. Enjoy the cliff.

    December 30, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • Herr Doktorr Vismann Trabanayat

      I think your list is amazingly depressing yet thank you for choosing us to read it. You must think we have something we can do for you? Yet many people are in the same sort of boat, having horrible life experiences. Mine could have been worse, yours could also have been worse.
      This "could have been worse" reaction of mine is something that has helped me close my mind to the horrors I have experienced. I have a good imagination and it is not too hard to imagine even more horrible things that could have happened instead. Not all that helpful, but it's better than nothing.
      Other than that I have no idea what to say. Your list leaves a lot out, I'm sure, but sharing even a tiny bit of what has happened to you can be very therap.eutic, so keep sharing until you don't feel the need anymore.
      Get some good drugs. Weed is best. Sounds like you should avoid alcohol unless social drinking is available.
      Take some sort of vacation from your memories if you can. Whatever works for you, find out what it can be and do it.
      Sell your guns if you have any. If you want to save one to kill yourself with, that's fine. Just don't get into a place where killing others is going to be part of a real plan.
      My list is different. I am not going to share it because it wouldn't help me. I welcome you to the internet and suggest going to 4chan if you want brutally honest responses from a mix of helpful and non-helpful trolls. CNN is not a good place to seek therapy. Lots of people would love to help you, like me, because it helps us forget our own problems.
      Find hobbies, read stuff that takes you away from your life. Escapism is extremely healthy. Do it whenever you can.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      @Herr Doktorr Vismann Trabanayat

      Don't misunderstand, sure I am a little tweeked, but my point is how stupid Christisins are. Life is random. If there were a god, he would be one hell of a S.O.B.!!!

      December 30, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
  6. What????

    This is the craziest attempt at 1984-esque revisionist history that I have ever seen firsthand, happening in real time. It is the truth, it is a fact, that the Russian Revolution in 1917 was a mass Jewish uprising. They stormed the Kremlin, killed the Czar and his whole line, and proceeded to "holocaust" 40 million Russians. The USSR was a Bolshevik/Jewish/Communist nation.

    We can't stand for this. We can't stand for a news agency as big as CNN rewriting history to say that it was the Jews who were oppressed in the USSR. Forty MILLION Russians were killed in a genocidal purge that DWARFS the Holocaust nearly 10 fold. And yet no one even knows that, because the news like CNN, is trying to rewrite history with this garbage.

    It is unbelievable that CNN is trying to paint this historical situation entirely backwards and reversed from what really happened. Do your own research. Find out this information for yourself. Never blindly believe something that you have been told, without looking into it personally. Because a whole generation of people is going to grow up reading CNN, with an entirely warped 1984 version of history.

    December 30, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • baltasar

      It is a piece all the more harmful because of its light, warm tone. Ravitz should have been working for the old Pravda- oh wait, this is CNN after all.

      December 31, 2012 at 11:15 pm |
  7. alsatian in oklahoma


    December 30, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
  8. alsatian in oklahoma

    THINKER23.....Euh!!!! LOOK! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Mlw2mlf35Y Almost, one of the best video!

    December 30, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  9. Alex

    Complete list of the central committee of the Bolshevik party, year 1920, complete with ethnicity/background of every member:


    Oh yeah, you poor little jews were really the victims – yet again, amazing! Are you ever NOT claiming victimhood and "reparations"? You are supposed to be intelligent; so why don`t you see the obvious clarity in the fact the most people are getting so sick of reading about your "oy vey, the sufferink" that they not only stop to care about it, but start to really dislike you, aswell? Those who didn`t already, that is.

    December 30, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
  10. Alex

    You have to be f""" kidding me! Around 80% of the top figures in the very same Bolshevik party that administrated the killings of 40 million white Russians and Ukrainians WERE jews! Have you absolutely no shame?

    December 30, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  11. Apple Bush

    colin, love your posts. Thank you for taking the time to write them. Question, could you re-post the post about "If you hear God" where you discussed all the different religions? Thanks bro!

    December 30, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  12. alsatian in oklahoma

    WHAT IS THIS?????... I'am sorry but it is not the jewish (atheist) communists organisation who killed around 70 000 000 Rusians and Ukrainians?????????... Please Jews! don't say Russians communist killed you!...

    December 30, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Boomer Sooner

      December 30, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • Thinker23

      Can you elaborate on the "jewish (atheist) communists organisation" please? Some of your friends here argue that Jews are those who follow Judaism and this means that atheists CAN NOT BE JEWS...

      December 30, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  13. jose miguel alvarez

    You americans have a problem with jews, your media is completely biased about them you live in Alices world. Those articles are really amazing, now we have to learn from the amercian media that the jews were opressed under Soviet rule. hahahahaha, fantastic news.

    December 30, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Thinker23

      As a matter of fact, the "amazing" one here are YOU, Jose. If you already know everything CNN can report WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?

      December 30, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      I say fuck the jews. Be an American or get lost.

      December 30, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • Uncouth Swain

      Hey AB...give us the official definition of an American. If you can.

      December 31, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  14. Apple Bush

    If I were a worm, and looked up at you, this would be bewildering and incomprehensible. Worms live in a different universe.

    Everything would be exactly as it is, but completely different. This is the same for humans.

    This is the definition of magic.

    December 30, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Mohammad A Dar

      What's cooking, AB?

      December 30, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      That weird southern lady that can't pronounce any words and says "ya'll" every 30 seconds.

      December 30, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • Paula Dean

      Hey! Y'all leave me out of this!

      December 30, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Yeah, that eee-us herle ya'all.

      December 30, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  15. Apple Bush

    There is a place for the Jews (who identify themselves as "jewey jews", not your friend at work. It is called Greenland. It is all yours.

    December 30, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  16. PFJones

    Jews WERE the Bolshevik/Communist butchers, who mass murdered 10's of
    millions of Gentiles, not the victims. But with a monopoly over the
    media, they can twist this part of history too. How convenient.

    December 30, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Thinker23

      Considering that the Jews amounted to less than 2% of the population I doubt that the Jews " WERE the Bolshevik/Communist butchers, who mass murdered 10's of millions of Gentiles." I doubt even more that they could establish the "monopoly over the
      media"... Unless, of course, you insist that the Jews are the God chosen people with superhuman abilities.

      December 30, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  17. AlFetahRevolution

    Syrian rebels ‘beheaded Christian and fed him to dogs’
    Syrian rebels ‘beheaded Christian and fed him to dogs’
    Syrian rebels ‘beheaded Christian and fed him to dogs’

    He has just got married and his wife was about to give birth but this did not save Andrei Arbashe, a young Christian, from a horrific fate at the hands of rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime earlier this month.

    “They beheaded him, cut him into pieces and fed him to the dogs,” said Agnes-Mariam de la Croix, mother superior of the Monastery of St James the Mutilated between Damascus and Homs.

    Forget the familiar Arab spring narrative about down-trodden masses taking on the forces of evil: the Syrian conflict appears to have entered a darker phase in which the rebels are committing atrocities against innocent civilians. It does not bode well for peace.

    The people who chopped up Arbashe did not seem to need much of a motive: his brother had apparently been overheard complaining about the rebels behaving like bandits.

    See infowars.com

    December 30, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  18. MikeA

    Wow, all this commentary about the Palestinians and how it's the fault of the Jews. Totally ridiculous.
    Do you want to talk about the Middle-East and ethnic cleansing? Really? Do you want to go there, you ignorant people?

    MOROCCO – 1948: 285,000 Jews. Today: 6,500 Jews.
    ALGERIA – 1948: 140,000 Jews. Today: 28 Jews. (yes, 28)
    TUNISIA – 1948: 110,000 Jews. Today: 1,700 Jews.
    LIBYA – 1948: 32,000 Jews. Today: None.
    YEMEN – 1948: 63,000 Jews. Today: None.
    IRAQ – 1940: 150,000 Jews. Today: None.
    SYRIA – 1940: 35,000 Jews. Today: None.
    EGYPT – 1940: 150,000 Jews. Today: 150.

    Yeah, but okay, keep reading your al-Jazeera and convinve yourself that it is Israel's fault about the Palestinians, and not the fault of the surrounding Arab countries who refuse to help, in any way, the Palestinians. These Arab states all share one common enemy, Israel. Why on earth would they want to help the Palestinians and take away their only cause for unity? "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." Some of you people really need to stop and think.

    December 30, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Alex

      Mike, I agree with you 100%!

      December 30, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  19. Todd

    Why is it that wherever the Jews go, people hate them. Could it be that it is because they are the problem??

    December 30, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • Steve

      Constantine's Sword by James Carroll does a good job chronicling the history of the church & Jews. It helps one understand the historic treatment of Jews by Christians and why this came about. Carrol is a former Catholic priest that did a thorough job. It is not a propaganda piece. Militant Islam, from the 7th & 8th centuries to today, is intolerable of all other faiths, Christian or Jewish. Christians are being eliminated from their Holy Lands after coexisting with Jews and Muslim for 2,000 years. and yet, somehow, it's the Jews' fault again. How sad...how ignorant.

      December 30, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • Alex

      Todd! It is You and people like your are the Problem for your lack of intelligence and hate.

      December 30, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • Staszek

      Could it be that they win too many Nobel prizes?
      1/500-th of the world population getting, in some disciplines,
      about half of all awards.

      December 30, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • Thinker23

      Todd... Of course, the Jews are the problem. Look how great the countries that forced the Jews out are doing. Look at Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Gaza... People there have wonderful lives without the Jews, don't they?

      December 30, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • Charmander

      Could it be that there's a lot of bigots and racists around, starting with you?

      December 30, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  20. sophia

    and im all races we are one. HUMAN RACE!

    December 30, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.