Has the Soviet Jewry movement anniversary forgotten Soviet Jews themselves?

Last updated on March 5, 2024

Have you joined the virtual march to commemorate the real march for Soviet Jews yet? On December 6, 1987, some 250,000 people rallied in Washington, DC, to demand immigration rights for Soviet Jews. If you missed it, you can “remember” by joining the virtual march.

There are a lot of people talking about the Soviet Jewry movement. But not so many talking about Soviet/Russian Jews themselves.

This means a lot of headlines like “How We Freed Soviet Jewry” or “New York, Capital of the Jews…the 1970s—when the city embraced Soviet Jews…“.

The overall impression is that most of the Jewish media seems more interested in talking about themselves (“A Ticket that Marked the Path to Freedom“; “Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jewry made a difference“; “Clevelanders played pivotal role in freeing 1 million Soviet Jews“) than about the people they were marching for. The thousands of immigrants, with their suitcases and Soviet fashions, who spilled out through Vienna, into Rome and then on to the west? Invisible. Soviet Jews saved themselves too.

But as the interest in the Soviet Jewry movement grows, we’ve been reduced to being a catalyst for American Jews to find themselves:

“The plight of Soviet Jews, and especially those who were denied exit visas to emigrate to Israel, would become the rallying cry of a wide-ranging and transformative political movement in American Jewish life during the decade. Soviet Jewry, as it was called, nurtured ideas and launched careers within Jewish New York and shaped causes as divergent as the Jewish settlement of the West Bank and the international human rights movement. At its core, though, Soviet Jewry was a story told in New York about another massive and influential Jewish culture—a branch of the family tree not accounted for in any of the other dominant plot-lines of European Jewish history.” – New York, Capital of the Jews [emphasis mine]

It’s a difficult thing to say. Because who’s not grateful for thousands marching in the streets of America, Canada, Britain? For thousands carrying signs and writing letters and agitating for your rights halfway around the world?

So grateful? Yes. Grateful and so very, very lucky. There are people who would not be alive today were it not for the rallying and marching and letter-writing. But they’re mostly a footnote – a line about Sharansky tucked in at the bottom of the story.

Where were the Soviet Jews?

Ironically, only CNN managed to cover both sides of what is truly a significant historical achievement:

Driven by desperation, Marina and Lev Furman stepped out of their home in Leningrad and took a 20-minute walk into uncertainty. Trailed by KGB agents, they bundled up and set out in the weak winter light for Palace Square, site of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. They brought signs demanding freedom. And they pushed a baby carriage holding their 9-month-old daughter, Aliyah…Friends told the Furmans they were crazy. Such demonstrations were forbidden in the square. The couple arrived in silent protest and spotted a mob of police and KGB agents waiting for them. Knowing they’d be taken away, they chained themselves to Aliyah’s carriage…On this day, though, they knew they weren’t alone. The date was December 6, 1987.

Some 4,500 miles and a world away, 250,000 people were preparing to protest in Washington as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was preparing for his first White House summit with U.S. President Ronald Reagan. The demonstrators wanted to make sure the Furmans and other Soviet Jews weren’t forgotten.

So that’s why it matters. Thanks CNN.

And now it’s your turn – what do you think about how the Soviet Jewry movement has been commemorated? Is there too much focus on the American side of the story? Or maybe it doesn’t matter so long as people remember? Weigh in on the comments below!

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