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.

Forty years ago, in the early spring of 1964, an imposing man in his late thirties, tall, with a Vandyke beard, a British accent, and a Russian-style fur hat, appeared on the campus of Yeshiva University in upper Manhattan, and began knocking on dormitory doors. For weeks, he went from room to room, soliciting support for a cause of which few people had yet heard: Saving the Jews of the Soviet Union.
The man, Jacob Birnbaum, had arrived in New York from Manchester, England, the previous year with the aim of convincing American Jews to rise up against what he called the “spiritual genocide” of Soviet Jewry. Only the Jews of the United States, he insisted, had the resources and connections that could make a difference. The Soviet Union was not impervious to world opinion, he told anyone who would listen. With the end of Stalin’s irrational rule, the Soviets—fearful of a rising China and desperate for technology and trade to infuse its failing economy—would increasingly turn to the United States for help, making the Kremlin vulnerable to economic pressure. With enough determination, American Jews could pressure the Soviet Union into concessions to prevent the cultural and religious extinction of Soviet Jewry. What was needed, Birnbaum insisted, was for Jews to shrei gevalt—to cry out in protest.
Birnbaum’s proposed campaign was, on the face of it, absurd. The Soviet Union was, at the time, the most powerful empire in human history, and it had declared war against Jewish identity in all its forms. An estimated three million Jews—a quarter of the world’s Jewish population—had been singled out for a state-sponsored experiment in enforced amnesia. Where other religions were permitted to train clergy in their own seminaries, and other ethnic groups were granted national theaters in their own language, Jews were denied almost all expressions of collective identity. Even the thaw following Stalin’s death in 1953 did not temper the government’s campaign against the Jews. Though 450 synagogues had survived the Stalin era, by 1963, all but 96 had been shut down by the regime. Jews were accused of undermining the Soviet economy, and some were executed after public “economic trials.” KGB spies were planted in synagogues, and most worshippers were too terrified even to speak with Jewish tourists from the West; those few who did would only allow themselves to brush up against a visitor and whisper urgently, “They don’t let us live,” or, “Why are American Jews silent?” before slipping back into the Soviet oblivion. Inevitably, it seemed, the slow smothering of Jewish consciousness would result in extinction, and nothing could be done to prevent it.
Yet if the idea of mounting a protest campaign to change the policies of an intransigent, totalitarian regime seemed hopeless, the prospect of awakening American Jewry into action seemed scarcely less so. American Jews tended to view the problem with the same detached paralysis they had felt during previous periods of trial: There was, after all, no precedent for an effective protest campaign against an anti-Semitic regime.1 Demoralized by assimilation and shamed by the failure to rescue Jews in the Holocaust, American Jews had become a community on the defensive. Israel was a source of pride, of course, but prior to the Six Day War in 1967, the Israeli example did little to influence diaspora self-perception. Many Jewish leaders clung to the classic exilic strategy of “quiet diplomacy,” seeking intercession with government officials but shunning the public arena. Nahum Goldmann, the influential head of the World Jewish Congress, advocated precisely such an approach toward the Soviet Jewry problem and warned that protests would backfire.2 Leaders of the haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”) community similarly cautioned that Western protests would only make matters worse. The most strident opposition came from Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, widely perceived as an expert on Soviet Jewry because his Chabad movement maintained an underground network inside the USSR.3 Opposition to a public campaign for Soviet Jewry penetrated the mainstream Orthodox community, especially its central institution, Yeshiva University.
It was against these two great forces—Soviet determination and American Jewish paralysis—that Birnbaum set himself during the spring of 1964. In a few short years, the improbable fight to rescue Soviet Jewry would come to command the attention and resources of American Jews. Within a decade, both the State of Israel and a Soviet-Zionist dissident movement, encouraged in part by the spirited example of American Jewry, would take up the public struggle as well, calling upon the conscience of the international community to pressure the Soviet regime. The movement was so successful that, by the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan made Jewish emigration a centerpiece of his campaign of pressure against the Soviets.
Historians will argue over the precise role played by American Jews in securing the ultimate release of more than a million Soviet Jews. And yet, the grassroots movement begun in America in the early 1960s possessed in embryonic form all the central themes of what would eventually become a worldwide campaign. What is scarcely realized, however, is that this American movement owed almost all its political vision and strategic thinking to a single man. From the idea of confronting the Soviets through the vocal protest tactics of the civil rights movement; to the insistence that only the full-scale emigration of Soviet Jews, and not the easing of the restrictions they faced, could remedy their plight; to the belief in mounting pressure on the administration in Washington to put Soviet Jewry high on the international agenda; to focusing the Soviet Jewry campaign on the plight of individual refuseniks—all these were the product of Jacob Birnbaum’s efforts during the movement’s earliest years. All these ideas were first put into practice by his shoestring organization, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ), which during the 1960s set the tone for the entire American movement to free Soviet Jews.
For this reason, Richard Maass, the first chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, called Birnbaum the “conscience for Soviet Jews,” adding that SSSJ was “frequently several steps ahead of the other agencies” of organized American Jewry in understanding the nature of the struggle. The historian Martin Gilbert likewise called Birnbaum the “father of the Soviet Jewry movement.”4
Beyond its contribution to the freedom of more than a million Jews, the movement would bring about a major change in the way American Jews viewed themselves, giving them the confidence and political experience to take a far greater degree of responsibility for the fate of the Jews around the world. Before the mid-1960s, American Jews were reluctant to pursue Jewish causes publicly for fear of rousing anti-Semitism and jeopardizing their inroads into American society. Within the last generation, however, activism for Jewish issues has become a central feature of American Jewish life—such as combating anti-Semitism, campaigning to rescue Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s, and promoting lobbying groups such as the America-Israel Public Action Committee (AIPAC). This degree of public activism is unprecedented in the history of the diaspora, and it may not be an exaggeration to say that it is largely a product of the Soviet Jewry movement, which trained a generation of young American Jews to believe that no threat to Jewish life and memory can go unchallenged.
All of this began, to no small extent, with one man knocking on students’ doors.

Jacob Birnbaum was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1926. His grandfather, Nathan Birnbaum, coined the term “Zionism” and served as secretary general of the first Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897.5 Dissatisfied with his western European acculturated identity, Nathan Birnbaum was drawn over time to the Judaism of eastern Europe, and eventually abandoned his secular nationalism for religion, becoming secretary general of the haredi Agudath Israel. Nathan’s son and Jacob’s father, Solomon Asher Birnbaum, a leading Yiddish scholar, moved from Germany to London in 1933. During the war, he worked for the British government’s national censor, in the Uncommon Languages Department. “He read the desperate letters from Europe, so he knew what was happening to the Jews there,” his son recalled. “He tried to do what he could, but his helplessness seared itself into my soul.”6

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