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Timelines of the American Soviet Jewry Movement

1953

After the death of Josef Stalin on March 5th (Purim), the Soviet Union retreats from its most sinister policies towards its Jewish population, but continues to suppress Jewish religious and cultural life. Hostility toward Zionism and Israel grow. 

 

1956

Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Noted Soviet poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, publishes his poem, “Winter Station,” one openly critical of official anti-Semitism. In June, a delegation of rabbis from the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America visits Moscow to verify reports regarding conditions facing the Soviet Jewish community.

1959

US President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Premier of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev at Camp David.

On September 14, a cover story by Moshe Decter in the New Leader documents discrimination against Soviet Jews, a major breakthrough in making the public aware of their plight. On September 25, President Dwight D. Eisenhower urges Nikita Khrushchev to resolve issues concerning the status of Jews in the USSR during a meeting at Camp David. Eisenhower cites the “deep concern” expressed to him by Jewish groups.

1960

Dr. William Korey

In October, a study by Dr. William Korey and B’nai B’rith on the Right to Leave and Return is submitted to the United Nations. In 1964 it would be adopted by the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry as a fundamental legal statement on the rights of Soviet Jews.

1961

Yevgeny Yevtushenko publishes his poem, “Babi Yar,” an attack on both the official silence surrounding the Holocaust, and popular anti-Semitism. The poem resonates among intellectuals and others in the West, and is cited by the Soviet Jewry advocacy movement.

1962

Cuban missile crisis.

1963

Judaism Without Embellishment

In October, the Cleveland Council on Soviet Anti-Semitism is formed. Together with similar, independent committees it would eventually help create the nation-wide Union of Councils for Soviet Jews.

On the 29, Justice Arthur J. Goldberg and Senators Abraham Ribicoff and Jacob Javits meet with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and challenge him regarding Moscow’s treatment of Soviet Jews. Trofim Kichko’s anti-Semitic book, Judaism Without Embellishment, appears in the Soviet Union during the ongoing anti-religious campaign. It is made available to the United Nations by Morris B. Abram, a member of the US delegation, with the American Jewish Committee. The booklet, with virulently anti-Jewish texts and images, becomes a cause célèbre in the USSR, while it is denounced throughout the West.

1964

Button from the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry

In April, at Columbia University, students launch the advocacy organization, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry; major Jewish organizations meet at the Wilshire Hotel in Washington DC, where they agree to launch an ad hoc American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry (AJCSJ), a coordinating body to advocate on behalf of Soviet Jews.  

On October 15, Nikita S. Khrushchev is removed from power, and Leonid Brezhnev assumes power as First Secretary of the Communist Party, the beginning of the eighteen-year “Brezhnev era.” On the 28, over 10,000 people attend a rally in New York’s Madison Square Garden, one of the earliest public demonstrations for Soviet Jews.

1965

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

In April, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach debuts his song, “Am Yisrael Hai” at a New York City demonstration. It becomes a rallying cry for the Soviet Jewry Movement.

In September, a Soviet crackdown on human rights activists and dissidents results in the arrests of writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel. In Washington, DC, September 19-24, thousands attend the National Eternal Light Vigil, the first public demonstration in the US capital organized by the AJCSJ.

1966

The Jews of Silence by Elie Wiesel.

Elie Wiesel’s The Jews of Silence is published, calling attention to the plight of Soviet Jews. Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky are placed on trial for “anti-Soviet propaganda” in the first of a series of show trials.

In July, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, representing Reform rabbis, undertakes a five-week East European mission to explore the status and condition of Jews, primarily in the Soviet Union. Most sources are closed to the delegation. In December, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin declares at a Paris press conference that Jews could only leave the Soviet Union on the basis of family reunification.

1967

Israel’s victory in the Six Day War (June 5-10) stirs pride and strong national sentiment among many Jews in the Soviet Union. Applications to leave for Israel escalate. The Soviet Union again severs ties with Israel. Restrictions on Jewish enrollment in top universities expand, stimulating additional Jewish applications to leave.

1968

Launching of Academic Committee on Soviet Jewry, to be headed by Professor Hans Morgenthau. The group focuses on Jewish scientists and academics who lost their jobs after applying to leave for Israel.

In May, eighteen Soviet Georgian Jewish families issue an appeal to the United Nations, calling for their right to leave the Soviet Union. It is released publicly in Israel, catching the attention of the media and advocates for Soviet Jews. In June, House Minority Leader Gerald Ford (Rep., Michigan) introduces a general amendment in support of Soviet Jews. In December, Boris Kochubievsky is charged with anti-Soviet slander and put under arrest after campaigning to leave for Israel.

1969

Activists protesting Boris Kochubievsky’s arrest and sentencing.

On May 16 Boris Kochubievsky, charged with anti-Soviet slander, is sentenced to three years of hard labor. His is the first known case of the sentencing of a Jewish activist. On November 25, the United States moves to raise the issue of Soviet Jews at the United Nations. US delegate Rita Hauser brings the issue before the General Assembly.

1970

Anti-Semitic Soviet propaganda.

A heavily publicized press campaign is organized by Soviet authorities to condemn Israel. Soviet Jewish cultural, artistic, and scientific personalities are forced to participate.

On March 3, thirty-two independent groups in the US join together to create the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews. In the fall, Jewish Defense League members place pipe bombs in the doorways of the Aeroflot and Intourist offices, causing a minor diplomatic crisis between the US and the USSR; the Committee for Human Rights in USSR is formed and led by Valery Chalidze, Andrey Tverdokhlebov, and Andrei Sakharov.

On December 10, Human Rights Day, a daily vigil for Soviet Jewry vigil is launched opposite the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. The Vigil lasts twenty years. On December 24, Jewish and non-Jewish defendants are accused of hijacking an airplane to escape the Soviet Union and fly to the West and Israel, resulting in multiple fifteen year sentences, and two commuted death sentences.

1971

Between February 23 and 25, the First World Conference on Soviet Jewry opens in Brussels. The meeting adopts the Brussels Declaration with a commitment to strengthen the Soviet Jewry advocacy movement. On June 6, major and regional Jewish organizations adopt a proposal to reorganize the AJCSJ, to be renamed the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. The idea of a separate New York City entity is also approved, leading to the creation of the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry.

On December 13, an inter-organization Freedom Lights for Soviet Jewry rally fills New York’s Madison Square Garden, and receives major publicity.

1972

Solidarity Sunday

In April, Jewish activists in the USSR issue “The White Book of Exodus,” with scores of personal letters and appeals. It is smuggled out of the country and published by the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry. On Solidarity Sunday, April 30, thousands participate in a public demonstration for Soviet Jewry in Dag Hammerskjold Plaza near the United Nations; over 100 communities across the country organize similar demonstrations.

In August, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR introduces a “ransom tax” to be levied on emigrants and meant to deter Jews seeking to leave for Israel. On October 31, the Academic Committee for Soviet Jews prints a two-page ad in the New York Times, denouncing the emigration tax, and expressing support for Jewish academics and scientists unable to work in the Soviet Union. It is signed by 10,000 academics from over 100 institutions.

Meanwhile, on October 4 in Washington, DC, Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson proposes legislation linking trade benefits for “non-market” (i.e. communist) nations to the liberalization of their emigration laws.

1973

On February 7, Congressman Charles Vanik co-sponsors legislation similar to that of Sen. Jackson in the House of Representatives. A little over a month later, Senator Jackson submits the final version of the amendment linking trade between the US and non-market (communist) countries to the issue of free emigration.

Between May 2 and 9, New York Mayor John Lindsay visits Moscow and discusses Jewish emigration with Soviet officials. In that same period, between May 4 and 8, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger transmits to Soviet officials a list of more than 700 Jews repeatedly refused exit visas while on a diplomatic visit to Moscow.

On June 17, Leonid Brezhnev arrives in Washington, D.C. for a meeting with President Richard M. Nixon. He is greeted by a demonstration of nearly 13,000 people condemning Moscow’s policies towards its Jewish minority. Noted actor and folk singer Theodore Bikel, together with the African-American civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, lead a protest march to the Soviet Embassy. 

1974

On December 20 the Jackson-Vanik Amendment is overwhelmingly approved by the US Congress, making US trade concessions and low-interest loans to any “non-market economy” (communist) conditional on “respect for the right to emigrate.” 

1975

President Gerald M. Ford signs the Helsinki Final Act which, among other things, enshrines “human contacts” (the free movement of people), and the reunification of divided families as basic human rights. Leonid Brezhnev signs for the Soviet Union; the document becomes a global instrument for pressing human rights in the USSR especially Jewish emigration.

On October 10, Parliamentarians from twelve West European countries form a committee supporting Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union.

1976

In February, over 1,000 delegates from around the world attend the Second World Conference of Jewish Communities on Soviet Jewry in Brussels. 

On June 3, President Gerald M. Ford signs into law a bill creating a US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the “Helsinki Commission”) to monitor adherence to the Helsinki process. The Commission has the active support of the Soviet Jewry Movement and human rights groups.

Meanwhile, on July 2 the USSR unveils a memorial at the Babi Yar ravine containing no reference to the thousands of Jews murdered there during the Holocaust.

1977

Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky
Ida Nudel

On March 15, Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky, a young Jewish activist and a participant in the human rights movement, is arrested on charges of treason and spying for the US. This is viewed by many in Washington as a Soviet challenge to the humanitarian provisions of the Helsinki Final Act and as an obstacle to US-USSR détente.

In June, Congressional Wives for Soviet Jewry is formed in Washington, DC to serve as a public advocacy group. The first co-chairs were Helen Jackson, Jeanette Williams, Paula Blanchard, and Joanne Kemp. The group will go on to “adopt” Jewish Prisoners of Conscience in the Soviet Union, such as Ida Nudel.

On October 4, the First Review Meeting of the Helsinki Final Act is held in Belgrade. The US delegation, led by Ambassador Arthur J. Goldberg, presses human rights issues for Soviet Jews.

1978

On July 14 Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky is sentenced to three years in prison and ten years forced labor. His case attracts world attention and Sharansky becomes a symbol of Jewish Refuseniks.

1979

On April 27, five Soviet dissidents and Jewish activists, exchanged by the US for two Soviet spies sentenced in the US, arrive in New York City. Mark Dymshitz and Eduard Kuznetsov are greeted at New York’s “Solidarity Sunday” before leaving for Israel.

1980

Andrei Sakharov

On January 22, Andrei Sakharov–noted physicist, human rights advocate, and outspoken supporter of Jewish refuseniks–is exiled from Moscow to Gorky after protesting the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. 

1981

On October 12, more than 100 Hebrew teachers and students in the Soviet Union gather to protest to the Supreme Soviet about harassment and arrests.

1983

On March 15 the Third World Conference on Soviet Jewry is convened in Israel, with a large US contingent. Later that month, on March 29, the Anti-Zionist Committee of the Soviet Public is formed in Moscow to combat Jewish emigration activities.

1985

On March 11 Mikhail S. Gorbachev is appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party, promising a new policy of openness (Glasnost). On November 19, Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, makes a pre-Geneva summit appeal to President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, seeking free emigration for Soviet Jews.

1986

On February 11 Natan Sharansky, after an early release from prison, arrives in Israel. In March, Edgar Bronfman, President, World Jewish Congress, and Morris. B. Abram, Chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, visit Moscow in a failed effort to negotiate religious freedom and emigration rights for Jews. From October 11-12, the second summit meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev is held in Iceland. A group of US Jewish leaders flies to Reykjavik to brief delegates. 

1987

On December 6, 250,000 people participate in the “Freedom Sunday” March on Washington, DC on the eve of the first Reagan-Gorbachev Summit Meeting in the US capital. It is the largest rally ever organized in the US on behalf of a Jewish issue, and it marks the peak of the Soviet Jewry advocacy campaign in the US.

1988

The Coalition to Free Soviet Jews halts its annual Solidarity Sunday demonstrations near the United Nations in New York City.

1989

In January, at the Meeting of the Conference on Security and Economic Cooperation (CSCE) in Vienna, the Soviet delegation approves the Final Declaration which includes the Right to Leave and the principle of family reunification. On February 12, reflecting the profound changes unfolding within the Soviet Union, the Solomon Mikhoels International Cultural Center opens in Moscow with the help of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC or “The Joint”), a social welfare agency whose mission is to assist Jews throughout the world.

In December, more than 700 Soviet Jews from 175 non-governmental organizations, in addition to observers from other countries, meet in Moscow at the first national conference of Soviet Jews in over seventy years.

1990

On March 15, Mikhail Gorbachev becomes President of the Soviet Union. On December 10, the Soviet Jewry Vigil, held daily opposite the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., ends after twenty years. Nearly 182,000 Jews leave the Soviet Union for Israel, and thousands more for the United States.

1991

On December 25, Mikhail Gorbachev resigns after an aborted anti-government coup, and is succeeded by Boris Yeltsin. The Soviet Union dissolves into independent republics.