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Timeline of the Jewish Movement in the Soviet Union

See text on the Jewish movement below.

Elie Wiesel wrote about encountering the “Jews of Silence,” during his trip to the Soviet Union in 1965. He turned the epithet around on his Western audience, as well, exhorting them not to remain quiet in the face of the suffering of their Soviet Jewish brethren. The closure of most Jewish organizations by the late 1930s, the post-War anti-cosmopolitan campaign and the violent suppression of intellectuals associated with the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (thirteen of whom were secretly executed on August 12, 1952), alarmed those who followed events in the Soviet Union. Even after Stalin’s death in 1953, their remained little official space for Jewish life and worrisome signs of an institutionalized antisemitism persisted.

The Jewish movement in the Soviet Union benefited in various ways from Western interest and support, but it depended in the first place on initiative taken by Soviet Jews themselves. A gradual awakening of Jewish national consciousness and an associated movement for emigration coincided with the emergence of Rights activism in the mid- and late-1960s. However, the Jewish movement possessed its own conditioning factors and character. The Six-Day War of June, 1967, was a watershed moment – the Israeli victory instilled fierce pride in Soviet Jews despite the heavy-handed anti-Israel propaganda of official Soviet press.

Many people whose passport labelled them “Jews” participated in Rights activism. Some of those subsequently became engaged in a more specific Jewish activism. However, the majority of those who became involved in the Jewish movement devoted their efforts to Jewish causes from the beginning. For many of them, the first step was applying for an exit visa, an act that often resulted in refusal for an unknown period and consequent loss of jobs and educational opportunities for them as “refuseniks.” Ostracism from the larger society and the exclusion from significant professional opportunities in many cases pushed people into unofficial Jewish activity.

Anatoly (Natan) Shcharansky is a famous example of someone who participated publicly in both the Rights activism of the Moscow Helsinki Group and Jewish movement demonstrations. However, this kind of dual engagement across movements was not common. In fact, after waging public campaigns for the right to emigrate to Israel in the early 1970s using techniques and discourse borrowed from Rights activists, Soviet Jewish activists developed a strong cultural focus on Jewish education, with Hebrew courses (ulpans), scientific, historical and religious seminars, holiday celebrations and children’s activities. In part, debate and passage of the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the 1974 Trade Act in the U.S. Congress, which was intended to limit U.S. trade with countries that did not observe the right to emigration and other human rights, brought the issue of Soviet Jewish emigration onto center-stage in international affairs. Emigration thus became a highly sensitive political question. Many Soviet Jewish activists deemed it worthwhile to focus on Jewish culture and educating Soviet Jews for eventual emigration, rather than engaging in more public forms of the struggle for that right.

The cultural trend presented itself as apolitical, yet nevertheless Hebrew language classes, seminars and other cultural activities continued to be suppressed periodically. Some Jewish activists took to the streets and government buildings to protest government actions. Jewish activists wrote open letters, contacted foreign supporters, campaigned vociferously on behalf of Jewish activist prisoners, and continued to demand the right to Jewish life and free emigration for all who wanted to leave. Activists also developed an extensive network of Hebrew classes around the Soviet Union, which connected Jews and provided the scaffolding for unofficial Jewish activities in the 1970s-1980s. By the early 1980s, the flow of exit visas – which peaked at over 50,000 in 1979 – slowed to under 1,000 for the entire USSR in 1984. However, with the shift in policies of the Perestroika era, the number jumped again to over 70,000 by 1989, foreshadowing the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of Jews in the early 1990s (see numbers in The Jewish Movement in the Soviet Union, ed. Yaacov Ro’i, Washington D.C., 2012, p. 107). In the 1980s, a legalist wing of the Jewish movement took root and stood poised to organize Jewish life on an official footing in the Soviet Union, beginning in 1988-89.