The Soviet Jewry Movement, Revisited

June 13, 2022

During the decades of the Cold War, North American and Israeli Jews were swept into a movement that advocated for Soviet Jewish emigration and religious freedom in the Soviet Union. From the 1960s until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, hundreds of thousands of Jews rallied, marched, and lobbied in the US for the Soviet Jewish cause, in what has been called one of the “most successful human rights campaigns in modern history.” Though the tangible impacts of these efforts are debated, the global organizing campaign is still remembered as a triumphant example of identity-based organizing that affirmed Jews’ relationships to one another across borders—a time when Jews came together to help other Jews.

But was the Soviet Jewry movement really a successful campaign for human rights? In the US, the effort found allies among militant ultranationalist Jews like Meir Kahane and his followers, as well as among a new hawkish wing of the Democratic Party who opposed détente. In Israel after the Six-Day War, the movement advanced the government’s agenda to boost the Jewish population in the burgeoning state. Meanwhile, American activists largely misunderstood the reasons for the “exodus”—attributing the migration primarily to antisemitism rather than the much more common reality of economic pressure and political uncertainty—creating a misconception about the reality of Jewish life in the Soviet Union that persists to this day. In this roundtable, contributors to the 2022 special issue of Jewish Currents will gather to discuss the legacy of the Soviet Jewry movement. Why revisit this movement now? What can the history of the Soviet Jewry movement teach us about Jewish identity and organizing today? How has this movement been remembered? What does the popular story of this history leave out?

Co-sponsored by the Center for Jewish History.

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Tova Benjamin is a PhD candidate at New York University, studying Russian and Jewish history. She was born in Chicago and lives in Brooklyn.

Hadas Binyamini is a PhD student in history and Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University.

Jonathan Dekel-Chen is Rabbi Edward Sandrow Chair in Soviet & East European Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research deals with modern Jewish history, transnational philanthropy and advocacy, non-state diplomacy, agrarian history, and migration.

Anna Shternshis is the Al and Malka Green Professor of Yiddish Studies and director of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923 – 1939 (Indiana University Press, 2006) and When Sonia Met Boris: An Oral History of Jewish Life Under Stalin (Oxford University Press, 2017). She is currently working on a book about Yiddish music created in Nazi-occupied Ukraine.

Sasha Senderovich is an assistant professor of Russian, Jewish, and International Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle. With Harriet Murav, he co-translated David Bergelson’s novel Judgment (Northwestern University Press, 2017). He is the author of How the Soviet Jew Was Made (Harvard University Press, 2022).

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