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Jacob Birnbaum and the Struggle for Soviet Jewry

By Yossi Klein Halevi

Forty years later, a look at the man and the movement that transformed American Jewry.


Jacob Birnbaum’s commitment to Soviet Jewry was largely informed by his grandfather’s passion for eastern European Jewry and his father’s frustration at being unable to help prevent its destruction. From his grandfather’s ability to traverse European Jewry’s bitter ideological divides, Birnbaum learned to see himself as a “klal yisrael Jew”—a Jew for the whole Jewish people, drawing his identity from the totality of the Jewish experience. Though he remained an observant Jew, he shunned denominational labels, feeling at home in all Jewish camps but ultimately belonging to none.
Beyond the question of identity, Birnbaum absorbed an intense belief in the importance of public action on behalf of the Jewish people. In the 1950s, he sought out groups of teenage Holocaust survivors who had been brought to England and Ireland to assist in their process of rehabilitation. In 1962, he went to France to investigate the situation of Algerian Jewish immigrants. In a report he wrote of that experience, Birnbaum warned of a massive social breakdown, and especially of a “shocking wastage, from the Jewish point of view, taking place at the student level.” He urged the formation of a movement of Jewish students to volunteer among the immigrants and help reconnect them to the Jewish community. “A responsible body in this country should send out, on a regular and systematic basis, groups of young people to areas of need.” Such a movement, he added, would benefit not only the Algerian Jewish community but British Jewry too, creating a “cadre” of future communal leaders.7Although this vision for Algerian Jews never materialized, his call for a systematic student effort prefigured his idea of a student movement to save Soviet Jewry.
By the time Birnbaum arrived in New York, the first signs of public concern for Soviet Jewry had emerged. Since the late 1950s, the problem had been a growing topic of discussion among Jewish leaders. A B’nai B’rith delegation traveled to the Soviet Union and took the issue to the UN; the American Jewish Committee organized an interfaith appeal; several prominent American Jews, including Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, briefed President Kennedy about the Soviet Jews’ plight.8 But those efforts were sporadic and uncoordinated.9 Finally, in early April 1964, hopes for more concerted Jewish action were raised when the leaders of 24 major American Jewish organizations decided, with the quiet prodding of the Israeli government, to convene in Washington to found the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry. With the creation of the Conference, as it came to be known, the establishment broke with Nahum Goldmann’s school of quiet diplomacy and committed itself, in theory at least, to a vigorous campaign. Yet the establishment’s lack of political self-confidence and its ambivalence about a public campaign were built into the Conference’s very structure, and it immediately became apparent that this new body would exist mostly on paper. With no budget or permanent staff, it was confined to irregular and limited activities, like meeting with government officials or sponsoring an occasional demonstration.
Birnbaum, by contrast, called for an urgent, daily campaign that would mobilize the resources of American Jewry and draw constant media attention. He described the Conference as a “toothless, fumbling group,” which would do little to effect a real change in Soviet policy.10 “We don’t need a conference,” he told his young associates, “but a struggle.”
And so, three weeks after the founding of the Conference, on April 27, 1964, Birnbaum convened the founding meeting of the College Students’ Struggle for Soviet Jewry—soon simplified to Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, or SSSJ. About 200 young people attended, most of them students from Yeshiva University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Columbia University, and Queens College. The meeting was held in the graduate students’ lounge of Philosophy Hall on Columbia’s campus. In the pamphlet announcing the meeting, Birnbaum had placed his vision in both an American and a Jewish historical context: “Just as we, as human beings and as Jews, are conscious of the wrongs suffered by the Negro and we fight for his betterment, so must we come to feel in ourselves the silent, strangulated pain of so many of our Russian brethren.… We, who condemn silence and inaction during the Nazi Holocaust, dare we keep silent now?”11
From its very inception, then, these two themes defined the movement: The Holocaust as warning, and the civil rights movement as example. Those messages resonated for the post-Holocaust generation then coming of age, which Birnbaum perceived as the vanguard of a transformed and empowered diaspora. Many of these young Jews saw American Jewry’s failure to mount a serious effort to rescue Jews during the Holocaust as a source of enduring shame. And some of them had participated in the successes of the civil rights movement, and experienced the redemptive power of public protest.
Birnbaum sought to channel these emotions into an effective public campaign. At the meeting, Birnbaum unveiled the four pillars of his strategy, all of which would later become central features of the entire Soviet Jewry movement. The first was to rouse a dormant American Jewry, working at the grassroots level, while simultaneously pressuring the establishment to transform the Conference on Soviet Jewry into an effective organization. Only the establishment, he argued, had the resources to sustain the kind of national protest and information campaign that could change history. Second, the movement would act to humiliate the Soviet Union by exposing its false pretensions as a model society. The third goal was to pressure Washington into becoming the active protector and defender of Soviet Jews. Finally, the movement would be directed at Soviet Jews themselves, boosting their morale.
The atmosphere in Philosophy Hall, Birnbaum recalls, was “electric.” Students denounced the “silence” of the American Jewish community during the Holocaust, vowing that their response to Jewish suffering would be different. One young man, overcome by emotion, sang a protest song he had composed on the spot, “History Shall Not Repeat.”12 When several students demanded immediate action, Birnbaum mused aloud that it might be appropriate to begin the campaign on May Day, a major holiday in the Soviet Union, just four days away. In fact, he had not come to the meeting with a plan for a May Day demonstration, nor was he sure that a successful rally could be organized so quickly. Still, he cherished the students’ impatience. It was precisely that youthful American passion that he had counted on when he came to New York.
The May Day rally was organized from Birnbaum’s apartment—more precisely, from the room he was renting from Yeshiva University’s chief librarian. Posters were drawn, press releases prepared, Hillel chapters and Jewish youth groups contacted, all in that cramped space. On May 1, a thousand students appeared across the street from the Soviet mission to the United Nations in Manhattan and picketed in an orderly circle for four hours. In spite of their numbers, the protesters maintained their silence, to simulate the enforced silence of Soviet Jews.
This was not the first time American Jews had rallied on behalf of Soviet Jewry. In the early 1950s, there had been several demonstrations against Stalinist anti-Semitism. In 1962, a few dozen students from a Manhattan yeshiva high school had picketed the Soviet mission to protest the Kremlin’s ban on baking matza. But unlike those isolated demonstrations, which lacked any follow-up, the May Day protest launched a quarter-century-long campaign that would fulfill each of Birnbaum’s four strategic goals, and would end with the freedom of Soviet Jewry.
For all his relentless faith, even Birnbaum could not have imagined, on that silent May afternoon, that the unlikely campaign to save Soviet Jewry would become the most successful protest movement in the history of the diaspora.
 
III

From 1964 until 1971, SSSJ was the only full-time Soviet Jewry organization in the United States. It tracked developments in the Soviet Union, distributed information on a daily basis, created nuclei of knowledgeable activists, and organized an ongoing protest campaign. The intensity and consistency of action that Birnbaum had initiated, and that was carried through on a day-to-day basis together with SSSJ national coordinator Glenn Richter, was unprecedented.
Immediately after the May Day protest, SSSJ’s activities began in earnest. In its first months, the group organized a week-long fast involving Jewish and Christian clergy, picketed a visiting Soviet dance troupe, lobbied the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City to adopt a Soviet Jewry platform, and widely distributed a Soviet Jewry activists’ handbook—which included fact sheets, eyewitness reports by tourists to the Soviet Union, and suggestions for creating a Soviet Jewry program in Jewish summer camps. Perhaps SSSJ’s most impressive early achievement was its October 1964 rally on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which drew both U.S. senators from New York as well as a representative from the White House—Lyndon Johnson’s special counsel, Meyer Feldman—who delivered a message of support from the president. SSSJ (known among its members as “Triple-SJ”) even generated Soviet Jewry protest songs, which resembled the protest folk music of the civil rights movement. (“There’s a fire burning brightly in the sky / and the roar of thunder crashing from on high / I see a nation there awakening / Iron chains will soon be breaking.”) From its inception, SSSJ created a Jewish version of America’s youth culture of protest. For its activists, political and cultural empowerment were inseparable.


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