Columbia's Forgotten Human Rights Beacon
The Editors

Columbia University students pick up quite a bit about our university's history. In general, we know that our school is one of America's oldest, that John Jay and Alexander Hamilton studied here, that the Manhattan Project is so named because it began in a Columbia physics lab, and that our campus was the scene of famous student protests in 1968. Students take interest and much justifiable pride in this history. Missing from the collective memory, though, is a fact that ought to be a major source of pride: on April 27, 1964, one of history's most successful human rights movements was born at Columbia.

On that day, roughly 200 students from various New York colleges met in the graduate students' lounge of Philosophy Hall to discuss the grim situation of Jews in the Soviet Union. Three million Jews—25% of the world's Jewish population—were at that time living under a Soviet system intent on erasing Jewish identity by closing synagogues, outlawing Hebrew, banning Jewish education and executing Jews for imagined "economic" crimes. Common thinking was that Soviet Jewry was “doomed." But such thinking was rejected by the students gathered in 301 Philosophy Hall. They resolved to free the Soviet Jews, and founded the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) as their vehicle. With that, the Soviet Jewry movement—which would last 25 years and become a vast international engine for freedom—was launched.

Almost two decades after the fall of Communism, it seems impossible to grasp the difficulty of the project taken on by SSSJ in 1964. Not only did the Soviet Empire have unprecedented power and force its Jews to suffer in silence. But American Jews were generally ignorant of the crisis, and were ill-organized to help in any case. As the journalist and Soviet Jewry movement veteran Yossi Klein Halevi has written:i "American Jews tended to view the problem with the same detached paralysis they had felt during previous periods of trial"—namely, the Holocaust of two decades prior. "There was, after all, no precedent for an effective protest campaign against an anti-Semitic regime." Thus SSSJ had to fight against both the Soviet Union and the poor record of the greater American Jewish and human rights communities—the "establishment."

They did so under the energetic leadership of Jacob Birnbaum, a Briton who came to New York to devote his life to the cause of Soviet Jewry. Birnbaum described the urgency of SSSJ's purpose in terms of the Holocaust and the American civil rights movement. As he wrote in the pamphlet advertising the April 24 meeting at Columbia: "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?"

Birnbaum's SSSJ became a grassroots, anti-establishment organization. The establishment's American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry—also founded in April 1964, by the heads of more than 20 American Jewish groups—came under heavy criticism from Birnbaum. He considered the Conference, which had no budget or permanent staff, meek and unwilling to spearhead a loud, public movement. Denouncing it as a "toothless, fumbling group," Birnbaum said: "We don't need a conference, but a struggle."

This meant an intense effort that set high goals, drew attention, and emphasized the gravity of the situation. Being until 1971 the only group dedicated full-time to Soviet Jewry, SSSJ set the agenda. It called boldly for the mass emigration of Soviet Jews, not just for the Soviet regime to treat them better. On May Day 1964, only four days after its founding, SSSJ took this message to the Soviets with a 1,000-student rally outside the Soviet mission to the United Nations. The rally made the New York Times, which noted that it was "organized at Columbia" and included signs in Hebrew, English and Russian reading "Open up Jewish Houses of Worship" and "We Cannot Keep Silent any Longer."

For years, SSSJ was the primary group tracking developments behind the Iron Curtain, organizing rallies, circulating literature, developing activist networks and cultivating emotional ties between American Jews and their distant, suffering brethren.

In the short-term, this activism was meant to galvanize the American Jewish establishment—for SSSJ appreciated that only large, recognized groups had the resources and connections to effect sweeping change. As time went on, then, SSSJ's success was signaled by its fade from the scene; by the late 1970s and 1980s, establishment groups took the lead, and Soviet Jewry became a front-page issue affecting Washington and Moscow.

Though some establishment leaders credited SSSJ with being "frequently several steps ahead of the other agencies," and many (including Congressman Jerrold Nadler and historian Martin Gilbert) have called Birnbaum the "father" of the Soviet Jewry movement, the available historical record does not clearly capture the extent of SSSJ's influence. Archivists tend to record major financial transactions, acts of Congress and the like, so a group like SSSJ—which worked to create the Soviet Jewry movement before it was prominent—can get short shrift. This fact about historical memory notwithstanding, it is valuable to learn from SSSJ's example.

Today, no matter the cause—national politics, Darfur, university reform—we hear about "grassroots" activism. For SSSJ, "grassroots" was not just a buzzword but a defining and guiding principle, and its history demonstrated the potential of grassroots activism.

As Halevi records, SSSJ "had no regular budget, relying instead on three-dollar membership dues from college students, the sale of buttons and other movement material, and the occasional check from a synagogue men's club...The inner circle of SSSJ never numbered more than several dozen activists." But these activists—led by Birnbaum working mainly from his apartment and National Director Glenn Richter working 8-10 hours a day from an office ("part time," he said)—had "tenacious, energetic, and singular devotion to Soviet Jewry," as historian Stuart Altschuler has written. Establishment organizations, on the other hand, were constrained by having to please many sub-groups and sub-organizations. SSSJ's freedom from such constraints allowed it to "develop closer ties to the Jewish dissident and refusenik world of the Soviet Union than did leaders of the establishment structure."

Like many humanitarian groups, SSSJ's effectiveness depended on its ability to elicit sympathy—for Soviet Jews, from American Jews (and ultimately from non-Jews, social leaders and politicians). Central to SSSJ's success in this regard, notes Halevi, was the steps it took to "personalize the campaign...SSSJ grasped the new opportunities to transform the movement from an abstract struggle for 'Soviet Jewry' into a concrete struggle for Soviet Jews, with names and stories. SSSJ publicized individual protest letters from Soviet Jews and organized demonstrations in support of refuseniks and prisoners of Zion." Such tactics, pioneered by SSSJ, remained part of the Soviet Jewry movement until its successful end, and helped make household names of individuals such as Anatoly Sharansky.

The intuitive wisdom of personalizing the Soviet Jewry campaign has been confirmed by research such as psychologist Paul Slovic's, which found that humanitarian appeals are most effective when they highlight the plight of individuals. This is because potential donors (of time or money) to humanitarian causes are motivated more by the prospect of concretely helping an individual than by the prospect of solving a seemingly unsolvable problem—disease in Africa, or repression behind the Iron Curtain. Thus when SSSJ was circulating the letters and chanting the names of specific Soviet dissidents, it was on the successful cutting edge of humanitarian strategies.

SSSJ was also a model of restrained, calculated activism. Whether considering a hunger-strike or a rally against a visiting foreign leader, student activists have to draw lines: at what point is enough, enough? SSSJ paid close attention to such questions. Birnbaum wrote that "We intend to keep this a highly responsible movement," which he defined as keeping it within the law. Only "approved slogans" could be used at rallies, and even the civil rights movement's tactics of peaceful civil disobedience were not allowed. Restraint, Birnbaum calculated, would maximize SSSJ's chances of earning the respect and support of mainstream American Jews. Such sobriety separates SSSJ from many other student movements which—driven by emotion and idealism, and untied to larger organizations—have crossed boundaries in the name of social justice.

In the end, the Soviet Jewry movement earned the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Jews. Indeed, it helped bring about the death of the Soviet empire. From the start, SSSJ set out to shame the Soviet regime; by the 1980s, the internationally-known Jewish prisoners of Zion had become a source of embarrassment for the Soviet regime and an inspiration for millions of other minorities repressed by the Soviet Empire. The controversial 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which forced the Soviet Union to allow emigration or lose its economically-valuable Most Favored Nation designation, passed in part due to the lobbying efforts of Jacob Birnbaum and SSSJ. Many Jewish establishment leaders had opposed the Amendment, saying it was too confrontational. Yet its enactment exposed Soviet weaknesses and helped force liberalizing reforms in Soviet society. Many factors led to the Soviet Union's demise, and assigning credit is difficult—but SSSJ and the Soviet Jewry movement certainly deserve a share.

For students today, it is both inspiring and daunting to consider the Soviet Jewry movement's success. This history drives us to examine the humanitarian crises of our day, but SSSJ is a tough act to follow. Would-be student activists today sometimes feel that the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) sector is impenetrable, or that large, rich, well-connected establishment groups have causes 'covered.' Moreover, many of the world's worst human rights violators—in Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Belarus—seem immovable, too powerful to bend to international pressure, let alone rag-tag youth protest. SSSJ is an important example to the contrary.

— David Feith

i Halevi's 1995 book, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, and 2004 article in Azure, "Jacob Birnbaum and the Struggle for Soviet Jewry," seem the most valuable, enjoyable sources on this history. Mixing autobiography, personal interviews and archival research, these writings are eminently readable and stimulating in reflecting on activism, American Jewry, Jewish self-identity and international relations.

design by Zach van Schouwen