Just as the civil rights movement began with students challenging segregation at lunch counters, the movement to free Soviet Jews began with students demonstrating at the Soviet Mission to the United Nations.
That 1964 protest was the brainchild of Jacob Birnbaum, who devoted his life to campaigning for Jewish causes and who died at 88 on April 9 in Manhattan. His inspiration was to bring the tactics of the civil rights movement to improving the lives of Soviet Jews.
“Jacob was the first to start the struggle,” said Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and Israeli politician, who announced the death. “This brought hundreds of thousands of Jews out to join him in the great struggle for Soviet Jewry, which made modern Exodus real.”
The grass-roots movement Birnbaum started contributed to legislation that eventually helped liberalize Moscow’s emigration policies. President Ronald Reagan personally pressed Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev on the issue.
And ultimately, more than 1.5 million Soviet Jews were allowed to move to Israel and elsewhere.
Major Jewish organizations, government leaders and politicians in the United States and Israel, and human rights campaigners – not to mention newly assertive Soviet Jews themselves – contributed to this success.
But the organization Birnbaum founded, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, was in the forefront of the effort, taking a more radical posture, along the lines of aggressive civil rights organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
In a letter to Jewish college students in New York in April 1964, Birnbaum wrote, “Just as we, as human beings, are conscious of the wrongs suffered by the Negro and we fight for his betterment, so we must come to feel in ourselves the silent, strangulated pain of our Russian brethren.”
Birnbaum picked May Day 1964 for his first protest because it was a major Soviet holiday. The thousand young men and women, almost all Jewish, who answered his summons marched silently in two neat rows for four hours in the conservative clothes they wore to synagogue. Birnbaum wore a thick Vandyke beard and a Panama hat.
Other demonstrations, some of which attracted as many as 3,000 protesters, were held on Jewish holidays, with the chanting of psalms in Hebrew, the blast of shofars and a giant menorah. Birnbaum insisted that every rally include posters declaring “Let my people go,” the line from Exodus 9:1 that became the clarion call of the movement.
His demand was free emigration, not just an easing of restrictions. He publicized the cases of individual Jews in Russia, despite mainstream organizations’ worries that this might endanger them. He tried to expose Soviet anti-Semitism and hypocrisy, in the belief that Moscow was more sensitive to international opinion than many thought. He lobbied Washington, and personally conveyed his support to Soviet “refuseniks” who protested being denied permission to emigrate.
When Birnbaum started his initiative, even his early followers knew little about the persecution of Soviet Jews. The oppression had continued after Stalin’s death in 1953, with synagogues shut, Jewish cultural institutions suppressed and a disproportionate number of Jews tried in death-penalty cases.
In October 1963, Moshe Decter, a writer who championed Soviet Jews, convened a group of luminaries that included the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They issued a statement titled “Appeal of Conscience for the Jews of the Soviet Union.”
That led to the formation of the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry, which became the National Conference on Soviet Jewry in 1971.
Birnbaum was frustrated with the conference’s carefully diplomatic approach and limited financing in its early years, describing it as a “toothless, fumbling group,’’ and telling associates, “We don’t need a conference, but a struggle.”
Richard Maas, the first chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, said in a speech in 1986 that Birnbaum was “the conscience for Soviet Jews” and that his organization was “frequently several steps ahead of the other agencies” of organized American Jewry.
For years, Birnbaum said the movement must be taken up by major Jewish organizations to be truly effective. That goal was achieved on Dec. 6, 1987, when some 250,000 people massed in Washington on behalf of Soviet Jews. Leaders of human rights, Jewish and Christian groups spoke, as did presidential candidates. Morris B. Abrams, chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, read a message from Reagan.
“Birnbaum was relegated to a seat at the back of the dais, forgotten amid the celebrities and politicians who lined up to speak,” Gal Beckerman wrote in the Jewish Daily Forward this month.
Yaakov Birnbaum was born in Hamburg, Germany, on Dec. 10, 1926. After Hitler came to power in 1933, his father, Solomon, a Yiddish scholar, took the family to London.
The younger Birnbaum earned a degree in modern history from the University of London, and taught and directed community centers in London and Manchester. He worked with survivors of Nazi concentration camps and Soviet labor camps, and with North African Jews who had fled the civil war in Algeria. He moved to New York in 1964 and soon started his campaign to help Soviet Jews.
Birnbaum, who is survived by his wife, the former Freda Beatrice Bluestone, went on to work with Soviet Jews in the United States.
“You can’t do anything but plant seeds of ferment,” he once said, “and you hope that ferment spreads.”