History of the Movement



The Birth of the Refusenik
The victory of the Six Day War "penetrated the Iron Curtain, forging an almost mystic link with Soviet Jews. Like a cry from a distant past, it told us that we were no longer powerless, and no longer alone. We now had a country that wanted us, and a people who stood behind us. But it was not just pride that Israel's victory evoked among the Soviet Jews. It was also a near unheard-of willingness to take on the Kremlin." – Natan Sharansky

The Six Day War

Israel's breathtaking victory in the 1967 Six Day War emboldened Soviet Jews, long silenced by censorship and isolation, to publicly voice their support of Israel and demand their right to make aliyah. In time, their brave demonstrations accelerated and their demands extended to include unrestricted emigration to the United States and West Germany, as well as freedom of religious expression within the Soviet Union itself.

These acts were particularly courageous in light of the grave consequences their predecessors had suffered after the 1948 founding of the State of Israel, when Zionists in the USSR who openly expressed their bond with Israel, were arrested, many fired from their jobs, some sentenced to long terms in prison, others deported and exiled to Siberia.

Refusenik Activities

The Soviet authorities barred many Jews from immigrating to Israel. These individuals became known as refuseniks. The refuseniks took open action to protest the ban under the battle cry, “Let My People Go!”, despite the severe consequences of arrest and imprisonment.

Other Jewish activists worked clandestinely to organize ulpanim for learning Hebrew; underground seminars on Jewish topics; kindergartens; activities by teenagers; events and festivals; underground religious activity celebrating the Jewish festivals (e.g., Purimshpils); publications, including samizdat (clandestine) publications; underground Jewish art. These secret meetings took place in people’s homes, putting individuals and their families at risk of arrest and harassment, were their hideouts to be uncovered by Soviet authorities and informants.

“The fact that a million Jews were striving to immigrate to Israel, but were trapped behind the Iron Curtain by the Soviet authorities, penetrated the world’s consciousness,” underscores Yuli Edelshtein, the former refusenik who today is Deputy Director of the Knesset.

Worldwide Jewish Consciousness Awakens

Between 1967 and 1989 Jewish activism in the USSR and the international support it received from the U.S., Israel and world Jewry shaped a generation of Jewish human rights advocates across the globe, and gave the Jewish people one of its most remarkable, modern-day success stories. Waged by Jewish organizations in North America, Israel, Britain, Continental Europe and elsewhere, the global campaign had a tremendous impact, imbuing a shared sense of Jewish peoplehood among Jews the world over.

Having learned the lessons of the Holocaust, Jewish communities were determined to assert themselves in defense of their brothers and sisters locked inside the USSR. Arming their protests with slogans such as “Never Again!”, Jews of all ages and backgrounds – from community leaders, artists and intellectuals, to students and housewives – protested outside Soviet embassies and consulates year in and year out until the power of their demonstrations were backed up by their governments’ exertion of diplomatic pressure on the Soviet Union.

Indeed, the Soviet Jewry movement caught the attention of statesmen and public figures throughout the West, who considered the USSR’s Jewish policy to be in violation of basic human and civil rights, such as freedom of immigration, freedom of religion, and the freedom to study one’s own language, culture and heritage. “You have no choice but to release Soviet Jewry,” U.S. President Ronald Reagan famously stated to Mikhail Gorbachev during the Soviet Premier’s first official state visit to the U.S. in 1987.

The Rise of Advocacy Groups

Activity on behalf of Soviet Jewry in the United States and Canada, Israel, Britain and Continental Europe, Latin America, and Australia, gave rise to numerous organizations advocating on behalf of Soviet Jewry. In the United States these include the National Conference for Soviet Jewry, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, and the Union of Councils on Soviet Jewry. These groups often cooperated to organize protests, petitions, demonstrations, and rallies in United States and all over the world. They successfully rallied the involvement of U.S. presidents and other leading politicians in activity on behalf of Soviet Jewry and the Jackson-Vanik amendment. They arranged meetings between refuseniks and U.S. senators before the signing of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975. Their efforts spawned the creation of “The 35”, the Women's Campaign for Soviet Jewry in Britain, Canada and the United States. They arranged meetings between refuseniks and Jewish visitors to the Soviet Union, who smuggled in material and spiritual support. They sponsored benefit concerts on behalf of Soviet Jewry by performers such as Theodore Bikel and Shlomo Carlebach.

In the end, the struggle succeeded, the floodgates opened, and Jews gained the right to immigrate – one million to Israel and around half a million to other countries. The Soviet Jewry movement had wider implications as well. The endurance and efficacy of Russian Jewish activism fueled the broader anti-communist movements found in all the Soviet republics and satellite countries, thereby significantly contributing to the fall of the Iron Curtain, begun in 1989 in the Eastern Bloc and climaxing with the 1991 collapse of the USSR.

* Text is excerpted from the exhibition, “Jews of Struggle” opening at Israel’s Beth Hatefutsoth Museum on October 30, 2007. For more information, visit www.bh.org.il