Soviet Jewry in the Post-War Period

Creation of the Movement (1960-71)
Rise of Advocacy (1971-84)
Glasnost & Perestroika (1985-91)
Present Conditions
Looking to the Future


Since 1971, NCSJ (now known as NCSEJ) has been at the forefront of advocacy on behalf of Jews in the former Soviet Union (FSU). NCSJ helped to put the issue of Soviet Jewry on the agenda of numerous U.S.-Soviet Summits over the past two decades. NCSJ has remained an active player in the Helsinki Process since its inception in 1975, and continues as the only official Jewish organization participating in the OSCE process today. NCSJ played a leading role in the movement, having co-convened the historic 1987 Soviet Jewry rally of 250,000 American Jews in Washington, DC. As part of a broad-based coalition of business and other groups, NCSJ has been the American Jewish community's voice in support of targeted U.S. aid to the former Soviet Union. During the refusenik period, NCSJ sent numerous travelers to meet with Jewish activists in the USSR, and during the current period NCSJ has conducted leadership visits and assisted UJA with several missions to the FSU. NCSJ also maintains regular contact with Jews throughout the FSU. NCSJ's leadership was intimately involved in the creation of the Lavrov Commission by the Russian Government. The achievements of NCSJ are inextricably linked with the history of the Soviet Jewry Movement.


The Jews in the former Soviet Union today constitute the third largest Jewish community existent in the world, and historically represent one of the most troubled ones. Jews began to live in what was then part of the Russian Empire relatively recently. As a result of the three divisions of Poland among the Prussian, Austro-Hungarian, and the Russian Empires in the 17th and early 18th centuries, the Russian Empire became home to the world's largest Jewish community. From the time of their entry into the empire, Jews have suffered from discriminatory laws, including some which placed severe limitations on where they could live, and periodic eruptions of violence, known in English by their Russian name, "pogroms."

The promises of the Russian Revolution of 1917 offered hope to the Jews that the injustices of the Tsarist period would end, and that a new period in the history of the Jewish people living in that area of the world would begin. With the passage of time, it became clear that these were hollow promises, and the communist successors to the Tsars began a systematic campaign to eradicate all religion, including Judaism. In 1952, Stalin had a number of leading Jewish cultural figures murdered. In early 1953, fifteen Jewish doctors were arrested in what became known as the "Doctors' Plot." Only Stalin's death, in March 1953, saved the doctors, who were subsequently released. Under Khrushchev a new campaign emerged to stamp out the Jewish religion and Jewish culture. Jews began to be excluded systematically from many institutes of higher education and professions. Many of the remaining synagogues were closed, and, in the early 1960s, a number of Soviet Jews were imprisoned or executed during a campaign against "economic crimes." During this period, there was a dramatic shift in Soviet foreign policy against Israel and toward the Arab nations.


Meanwhile, official Soviet policy denied the existence of anti-Semitism in the USSR. Khrushchev, himself, denounced the pogroms of the Tsarist era, and Prime Minister Kosygin in the mid-1960s went so far as to assert that "the road is open" and "no problem exists" for Soviet Jews who might want to leave for Israel. This remark provoked an increase in applications from Soviet Jews, primarily in the Baltic republics, for emigration to Israel in 1965 and 1966. As the plight of the Jews in the Soviet Union worsened, Jews in the West began to react with concern. In April 1964, the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry (AJCSJ) was founded to spearhead a national campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry. The AJCSJ established contact with the US Government, seeking to make the issue of Soviet Jewry an item on the bilateral agenda between the United States and the Soviet Union.

In 1967, in response to these early Soviet Jewry advocacy efforts, the Soviets permitted limited Jewish emigration. The Six-Day War in June 1967 brought this emigration to a virtual halt. At the same time, the success of the Israelis in defending the Jewish homeland sparked a reawakening of Jewish consciousness and pride among a segment of Soviet Jewry. The harsh sentences given to a group of individuals gave new impetus to the Soviet Jewry advocacy movement in the United States. All but two of the group were Jewish and were tried on charges of treason for an attempted airline hijacking. This episode was followed by a new crackdown on Soviet Jewish activists and the beginning of an anti-Zionist campaign by the Soviet government. It was at this time that the state-sponsored Anti-Zionist Committee was created and a steady stream of anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel material was published.


In the wake of these developments, the international Jewish community, including the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ) -- which replaced the AJCSJ in 1971 -- redoubled its efforts on behalf of their brethren in the Soviet Union. In conjunction with improved relations with the West -- the era of détente -- Jewish emigration increased in the years 1971-1973. However, in August 1972, the Soviet government instituted a new "diploma tax" for emigrants, which sparked the passage of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the Trade Bill of 1974, which prohibited the extension of trade benefits to non-market countries that imposed excessive emigration fees or otherwise limited emigration. Against the wishes of the Nixon Administration and large business concerns, the organized American Jewish community, led by the NCSJ, fought successfully for the passage of this legislation.

The Soviets eventually ended the "diploma tax," but in the wake of passage of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, emigration decreased. It increased once again in the 1977-79 period, reaching a decade high of over 51,000 in 1979. During the late 1970s a new round of prosecutions of visible Jewish activists took place, with the show trials of such public individuals as Natan Sharansky, Yosef Begun, the Slepaks, and Ida Nudel, and the interrogation and arrests of countless others.

After the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent deterioration in Soviet-American relations, Jewish emigration from the USSR dropped significantly, reaching a low of 896 individuals in 1984. The Soviet Jewry advocacy movement in the West reacted to the downward trend in emigration with increasing urgency. One sign of this concern was the demonstration, conceived by the NCSJ, on the Mall in Washington in December 1987, on the eve of the start of a Reagan-Gorbachev summit, in which an estimated 250,000 people participated.


The onset of the period of glasnost and perestroika eventually brought dramatic changes in Soviet policies toward its Jewish population. Emigration increased substantially, reaching a level of more than 185,000 in 1990 and continuing at over 100,000 through 1994, the vast majority of whom immigrated to Israel. Following a coup attempt in August 1991, the USSR formally dissolved into separate independent countries at the end of December 1991. Israel has established diplomatic relations with all of the successor states.

During that period there was a reawakening of Jewish religious and cultural life, as the Jews of the Soviet Union began to search for their roots and identity. More than 400 independent Jewish cultural organizations have been established in the former Soviet Union, and over 30 Jewish day schools now exist. The Va'ad, an umbrella confederation of many of these independent Jewish organizations was also created, and has held three congress meetings since it was established. In addition, regional umbrella groups have been developed in several republics of the former Soviet Union. To most western observers, it is quite remarkable that this renaissance of Jewish life was able to take place. Even though most of the Jewish population of the former Soviet Union was highly assimilated, with little background in Judaism, and their resources and knowledge of rebuilding Jewish communal life was extremely limited, they prevailed and are succeeding. With help now from Israel, world Jewry, in particular the American Jewish community, and sometimes their own local governments, a Jewish rebirth can be seen from all regions throughout the FSU.

By June 1989, NCSJ, in response to the dramatic upsurge in Jewish emigration, publicly supported for the first time a waiver of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment for the Soviet Union. In December 1990, in response to the dramatic upsurge in Jewish emigration, President Bush granted a partial six-month waiver of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, followed by a one-year waiver in June 1991. In May 1991, the Supreme Soviet passed a law that codified the right of every Soviet citizen to emigrate. However, this law contains restrictions that are inconsistent with internationally recognized standards for freedom of emigration; furthermore, this law served as a model for laws adapted in many successor states. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, 11 of the 12 successor states presently receive annual waivers of the amendment. Russia, with the full support of the NCSJ, no longer must go through the annual waiver process.


Today, the American advocacy movement on behalf of Jews in the former Soviet Union recognizes the progress achieved in recent years, but it is also aware that the post-Soviet Jewish community remains at risk in light of the highly unstable political, economic, and social conditions that exist in the FSU. While many of the independent states have attempted to implement political and economic reforms, democracy and the free market remain weak and uncertain. Several republics have faced coup attempts, civil war, ethnic conflict and more. While state sponsored anti-Semitism has been almost eliminated, one of the most negative developments of recent years has been an upsurge in popular anti-Semitism visible and vocal at the street level, in segments of the press, academia, the intelligentsia and amongst ultra-nationalist extremists.

In September 1994, NCSJ recommended that Russia had made sufficient progress with respect to its emigration practices to be found in compliance with respect to Jackson-Vanik. At a summit with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in September 1994, President Clinton announced Russia's new trade status, which requires bi-annual performance reviews to insure Russia's ongoing compliance.

Like other western observers of the former Soviet Union, the advocacy movement on behalf of the Jews in the former Soviet Union remains steadfast and deeply concerned because of the constant turbulence in that region of the world. Some of the progress towards rule of law and democracy is finding root in some areas, but in other regions there seems to be a backward movement taking place. For example, in some republics, hardliners reminiscent of the communist era are being voted back into office, and constitutions are being rewritten to give the presidents more authority. As democracy-building and free market economies try to take shape in this environment of confusion and uncertainty, the future stability and security of the Jewish population remains in great question. It is incumbent upon the advocacy movement to be prudent in its continued support and dedication to seeing this issue through. The NCSJ enlists all involved to remain vigilant in maintaining open emigration for those who wish to make aliyah or be reunited with family, and to pursue a just and secure life free of anti-Semitism for all Jews who choose to remain in the former Soviet Union.


Since the collapse of the USSR, the NCSJ and the American Jewish community have been closely following the process of reform. The security and well being of Soviet Jewry is inextricably linked with the successful democratization of Russia and the other successor states. We were hopeful that positive change would evolve from a new foundation based on a commitment to democratic values versus political expediency. And we also understood that Russia’s lead in this transformation was essential: "as goes Russia, go the successor states." Of the over 1.5 million Jews residing in the FSU, at least 600,000 live in the Russian Federation.

Over the last year or so, under the guise of democracy, we have witnessed a movement away from the positive changes that initially took lace. What appeared to be a commitment to democracy and human rights is, in reality, mere political expediency. Recently, these changes have become more and more abrupt, and the future of democratic values more difficult to predict. Russian Jewish communities are continuously analyzing the trends now seen in Russia and contemplating their own future. Throughout the FSU, the atmosphere remains uncertain.

Societies built on democratic values have always been a safeguard for their Jewish populations. Instead of seeing indicators of guaranteed rights and liberties, we are detecting the opposite. The following are examples of such indicators in Russia:

The Communist Party and other left-wing factions control a majority of Parliament. Totalitarian philosophies are not concerned with human rights, and have negative views toward minority groups.

The Yeltsin Government has removed almost all of its senior reform-minded officials and has replaced them with "old, Soviet style" politicians. This is most recently evident in Yeltsin’s recent appointment of the conservative Yevgeny Primakov to the post of Prime Minister. Primakov’s newly assembled economic team consists of Gorbachev and Brezhnev era economists, of which Yuri Maslyukov, the former head of Gosplan (the Soviet central planning agency), sits at the helm. Their past positions on democratic values and freedoms were negative. How they will deal with the current political and economic issues confronting them today is unknown.

As Russia approaches the presidential election of 2000, and as Boris Yeltsin becomes less of a factor on the political scene, the outcome of the election will likely determine the direction the country will be headed for years to come. Whether that direction is democratic and market-oriented or authoritarian/totalitarian, and whether their outlook will be Western or Eastern-oriented or isolationist, as well as their approach to human rights and treatment of national minorities—all have yet to be determined.

Social welfare, health and crime problems have reached catastrophic proportions. The government places no priority or concern on the welfare of the individual, nor does it protect its citizens by enforcing its laws. When governments do not care for their people, minorities are not only ignored, they are often blamed.

The independent countries of the former Soviet Union have great potential, but confront political and economic instability, uncertain international political alliances, and the need to refine policy regarding their inherited national minorities when their borders were defined following independence. A western, democratic outlook and developing political relations and economic ties with the West is essential to insure the protection of human rights and the opportunity for Jewish life to flourish in these still nascent countries.

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