Echoes Of The Soviet Jewry Movement
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Echoes Of The Soviet Jewry Movement

For veterans of the fight for refuseniks in the ’70s and ’80s, this week's march against anti-Semitism was a familiar and unnerving gathering.

Photo taken in March 1971, shows American Jewish organizations in the streets of Washington as they protest against the Russian governments attitude towards the Jews from the USSR. (AFP via Getty Images)
Photo taken in March 1971, shows American Jewish organizations in the streets of Washington as they protest against the Russian governments attitude towards the Jews from the USSR. (AFP via Getty Images)

For many who marched against anti-Semitism on Sunday, it was the first time they had participated in such a large Jewish demonstration. But for others, it was a day of nostalgia for the marches for Soviet Jewry of the 1970s and ’80s that defined Jewish activism for decades.

Much like the rallies for Soviet Jewry, Sunday’s march brought out a wide cross-section of the Jewish community to protest anti-Semitism —one of the few things on which one could elicit agreement among a diverse group of 25,000 Jews.

And much like the rallies for Soviet Jewry, the march brought together Jews of all political stripes. Among the throngs were supporters of the five establishment organizations that orchestrated the event, supporters of the far-right Meir Kahane and the far-left Jewish Voice for Peace, as well as synagogues, schools and institutions representing everyone in between.

For Glenn Richter, a veteran activist of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, vocal demonstrations like Sunday’s march owed a debt to the Soviet Jewry movement. “We took a community that was relatively quiescent [in the ’60s] … and we leveled the playing field and made political pressure, lobbying and everything else, normative in the Jewish community,” said Richter, citing the tactics used by the Soviet Jewry movement. “We made it so if you itch, you scratch.”

Several marchers mentioned the rallies of the ’70s and ’80s when asked why they were marching, some sharing stories of attending the marches with their parents as children.

The 1987 Freedom Sunday march for Soviet Jewry in Washington, D.C.
American Jewish Historical Society

“When we were teenagers we marched in D.C. for Soviet Jewry, and it brings me back to those marches,” said Nicola Rosenstock, 44, of White Plains, as she marched with two of her children.

“The last Jewish march I took part in was for Soviet Jewry,” said Paul Kasowitz, 73, of the Upper West Side, as marchers behind him sang “Am Yisrael Chai,” a song composed by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach for a Soviet Jewry rally in 1965. “I was proud to be a part of it and I was proud of the Jewish people for its persistence.”

When Aaron Stein, 65, of Englewood, N.J., heard about the plans for Sunday’s march, “the first thing I could think of was ‘let my people go’ and ‘we want freedom now,’” he said, referencing two slogans popular with the Soviet Jewry movement. Stein marched alongside his son, Rabbi Mikey Stein, who wore a tallit in the style of his teacher, Rabbi Avi Weiss, who was a leader in the movement to free Soviet Jewry and frequently wears his tallit to political protests.

The march drew a wide assortment of Jews joined by an urge to stand up anti-Semitism. David Khabinsky

In those days, Stein said, he would fight with his parents about his participation in the movement. “I told them then that we’re not going to be the generation that is silent,” he said.

For some former leaders of the Soviet Jewry movement, the fact that American Jews now felt compelled to march for their own safety was unnerving. David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, one of the five organizations that convened the march, was an organizer of the 1987 Freedom March of 250,000 people in Washington. He called the march on Sunday “surreal.”

“I never thought in my lifetime that we would have to organize an event to confront anti-Semitism in the United States,” Harris told The Jewish Week. “It was one thing to focus on the Soviet Union, on its oppression, on the Jews who were put in the gulag.”

“The Soviet Jewry movement was an expression of American Jewish self-confidence. There we were, the freest, most powerful diaspora in Jewish history stretching out its hand to the most oppressed Jewish community,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel and a former activist in the Soviet Jewry movement. “What’s unnerving for me about this round of Jewish demonstrations is that it’s not an expression of American Jewish self-confidence but of anxiety and desperation.”

Israelis gather in Jerusalem to support the “No Hate. No Fear” march taking place on Jan. 5, 2020 in New York City. (Courtesy of Jewish Agency for Israel/via JTA)

Of course, the march was, to some degree, an expression of confidence in the relationships between the Jewish community and elected officials, with a major showing of local, state, and federal elected officials leading the march across the Brooklyn Bridge. But for many participants, the goals of Sunday’s march, and the next steps to follow it, were less clear than in the days of the Soviet Jewry movement.

“A rally is a feel-good moment, it has political punch,” said Richter. “OK, what do you do for the second act? The message is clear, the methodology is obviously going to be stickier.”

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