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National Conference on Soviet Jewry

NATIONAL CONFERENCE ON SOVIET JEWRY

NATIONAL CONFERENCE ON SOVIET JEWRY . At the initiative of Rabbi Abraham Joshua *Heschel, a leading Jewish religious figure active in the American civil rights movement, and of Jewish political leaders, the Jewish community had begun to explore strategies to address the plight of Soviet Jews as early as 1963. In April 1964, with Rabbi Heschel's encouragement, and the guidance of Senators Jacob *Javits and Abraham *Ribicoff, as well as Associate Justice Arthur J. *Goldberg, Jewish organizational leaders gathered at the historic Willard Hotel in the nation's capital. Their mission was to articulate the Jewish community's concerns for Soviet Jews, and to engage fellow Americans in their defense.

The convening of an American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry (ajcsj) concluded with a decision to create a continuing but ad hoc arrangement to mobilize the organized Jewish community. Many voices were opposed to the creation of a free-standing advocacy effort, including the leadership of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, who were reluctant to see a new, independent organization that might diminish their own central roles in the Jewish community. Some personalities, such as Nahum *Goldmann, feared that aggressive activities would be seen as anti-Soviet and lead to the worsening of the situation for Soviet Jews.

The Israelis, acting under the aegis of the office known as the Lishkat ha-Kesher (Contact Office), responsible to the prime minister, were virtually the architects of the new coalition. The rescue of Soviet Jewry was an important task that the Israeli government thought that the people of Israel could not undertake directly and certainly not on their own.

At about the same time other organizations emerged that argued against the seemingly more orderly "establishment" approach of the ajcsj, or even its more activist successor, the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. This included the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry, a loose coalition of local activist groups from across the country, and the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, launched several weeks after the initial ajcsj meeting.

Joining such personalities in trying to energize the Jewish world was the eminent author Elie *Wiesel whose visit to the Soviet Union led to his forceful book The Jews of Silence. Then only emerging as a voice of conscience, Wiesel linked this effort of rescue with the failure to rescue one generation earlier. He also appealed for the silent Jews in the free West, who had a free choice, to become engaged on behalf of their coreligionists.

In the face of mounting harassment against Soviet Jews, and with the prodding of Israeli officials, the Council of Jewish Federations, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, and other leading Jewish organizations agreed to fashion the National Conference on Soviet Jewry out of the older ajcsj.

The newly minted ncsj began to function in June 1971 and eventually encompassed a massive network of over 50 national Jewish organizations and several hundred local Jewish federations and community relations councils. This extensive coalition would spearhead the advocacy campaign for Soviet Jews for the next 20 years, until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the easing of anti-Jewish restrictions.

The ncsj created an ever-expanding network of support groups to engage a broad range of citizens, including non-Jews. This included doctors, Congressional Wives (later Congressional Spouses) for Soviet Jews, and a special legal team for Soviet Jewish Prisoners of Conscience.

Concluding that public attention must be focused, ncsj became more aggressive in its efforts with the national media, the power brokers in Washington, Congress and the administration, and stimulated "grass roots" activism through its member groups. It accelerated local community and synagogue activities as part of a year-round program. To help safeguard individuals in the Soviet Union, and focus attention on the specifics of their cases, the ncsj created links to Jewish activists in the Soviet Union through visits, telephone calls, and letter writing. Such activities also helped personalize the movement for people thousands of miles away.

Using the expanding concept of politicizing the campaign, the ncsj fostered meetings with and programs of letter writing to government officials in Moscow and Washington, and organized conferences, public meetings and demonstrations targeting the Soviet Union so that it would loosen anti-Jewish restrictions. It also maintained constant contact with U.S. officials to reinforce their involvement with Soviet officials.

As a result the ncsj came to be recognized by the White House as acting on behalf of the organized Jewish community in regard to the Soviet treatment of its Jewish citizens. With its broad reach the ncsj could organize nationwide appeals and petitions, such as the delivery of over one million names to the White House prior to President Richard Nixon's visit to Moscow to meet Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

A major crisis developed following the May 1972 summit meeting between Nixon and Brezhnev, when the Soviet government announced a special tax on would-be emigrants, labeled a "ransom tax." The exorbitant fees embarrassed an administration seeking détente with Moscow, and led to strong reactions. In the United States members of Congress, under the leadership of Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Congressman Charles Vanik, joined with the ncsj to create legislation linking trade benefits to emigration practices, an effort supported by the ucsj and the sssj.

Despite powerful opposition from the Nixon Administration, a successful two-year campaign served as an effective means of popularizing the issues as well as inflicting additional pressure on Moscow. It also demonstrated how far the Jewish community had come in honing its political skills and resisting high-level political pressure by standing firm on principles.

The Jewish world was again threatened by a divisive issue that erupted over the destination point for Jews finally allowed to leave the Soviet Union. The ncsj took no formal position. Rather, it attempted to focus on the issues of the right to leave, an end to antisemitism, and the right to recreate Jewish life. But it did support the decision of Jewish refuseniks in the Soviet Union and of Israeli authorities to support direct flights to Israel. This position was based on invitations from Israel, which helped secure the permits to emigrate, and the Zionist orientation of the refuseniks. The ucsj and others rejected the Israeli plan and pressed for a so-called "freedom of choice" solution. That decision antagonized many of the Zionist organizations in the ncsj as well as the government of Israel and the Jewish Agency, the instrument for easing emigration to Israel.

Putting aside the controversy over destination, the campaign reached its zenith in the 1980s with a defining moment. On December 6, 1987, on the eve of President Ronald Reagan's first summit meeting in the United States with General Secretary of the Communist Party Mikhail S. Gorbachev, 250,000 people marched in the nation's capital. Christian dignitaries and members of Congress joined Jews from every state as well as leaders of different ethnic groups, students and labor leaders. It was the largest national event ever held in Washington for any Jewish cause.

Organized under the aegis of a special task force created by the ncsj, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry and the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews had been invited to cooperate and help create a wall-to-wall effort. While they could not bring a mass of people needed to give form to the broad scope of the movement, a demonstration of unity was critical.

The march and the broad media coverage did in fact signal to Gorbachev that the Soviet Union would not be considered part of the family of modern, industrial nations until its persecution of Jews and other minorities halted. Within a few years over one million Jews had been allowed to leave for Israel and elsewhere, while Jewish cultural and religious life was allowed to reorganize.

The struggle for Soviet Jews had encouraged the Jewish community in the United States to develop a strategy that encompassed strong national as well as localized efforts, with a strong political overlay. Jews had entered the political mainstream in an aggressive manner. As a result of the experience the community was better prepared in the future to utilize the political process to protect Jews wherever they were threatened. It was a powerful lesson not to be lost.

The Soviet Jewry movement brought together survivors of the Holocaust, their children and their grandchildren. It energized Zionists and non-Zionists as well as secular and religious Jews. Rabbis spoke from the pulpits of synagogues and came down from them; they were joined by Christian clergy of many denominations.

It mobilized activists from the American civil rights movement, who transferred their zeal and their experiences to this new campaign. It enlisted human rights advocates.

Within two decades after the Holocaust, the Jewish community had developed a sense of confidence lacking in earlier years. With this increasing self-confidence it learned how to identify the levers of power, and how to use them. The campaign was an exemplary use of "soft weapons" to achieve Jewish and human rights objectives, rather than call for or rely upon hard or military weapons.

[Jerry Goodman (2nd ed.)]

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