The American Soviet Jewry Movement's 'Uneventful' 1968: Cold War Liberalism, Human Interest, and the Politics of the Long Haul.

Author:Kelner, Shaul
 
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On April 7, 1968, the American Jewish Conference for Soviet Jewry (AJCSJ) convened at New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel for the umbrella agency's third biennial meeting. Over 350 representatives of its 25 member organizations-from the American Jewish Committee to the Zionist Organization of America-gathered to discuss the situation of Soviet Jews, to hear a plenary address by Senator Jacob Javits (R-NY), to vote on an official "White Paper" policy statement presented by the Hadassah president, Charlotte Jacobson, and to adopt an action plan to guide the Conference's work over the next two years.

The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. three days earlier on the balcony of Memphis' Lorraine Motel, however, cast its long shadow over the proceedings at the Waldorf. (2) Quickly adapting the program, organizers redesigned the conference brochure to proclaim in a large box on the front cover that this Biennial was "Dedicated to the Memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Defender of the Rights of All Men." The meetings opened with a memorial ceremony in which a recording of King's 1966 telephone address to their group was played:

[While Jews in Russia] may not be physically murdered as they were in Nazi Germany, they are facing every day a kind of spiritual and cultural genocide ... Negroes can well understand and sympathize with this problem. When you are written out of history as a people, when you are given no choice but to accept the majority culture, you are denied an aspect of your own identity ... We cannot sit complacently by the wayside while our Jewish brothers in the Soviet Union face the possible extinction of their cultural and spiritual life. Those that sit at rest, while others take pains, are tender turtles and buy their quiet with disgrace. (3) King's words affirmed the American Jewish campaign for Soviet Jewry as part of the broader movement for freedom that defined the hopes of the era. They also drew a moral equivalence between the situation of Soviet Jews and that of African Americans. (4) American Jews might have felt this to be so, but they could not speak for the African American community. King and other civil rights leaders held a certain power to confer legitimacy on Soviet Jewry activism in the United States and to reassure American Jews that their own feelings were, indeed, legitimate. (5)

The fact that this power to validate rested with civil rights leaders points to the American Soviet Jewry movement's connection to its American time and place. Or, at least, to the fact that it was grounded in the context of 1966, the year of King's telephone address. Its rootedness in 1968 is more open to question. In that year, the world's attention was lurching from the Tet Offensive in Vietnam to the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, assassinations in Memphis and Los Angeles, campus takeovers at Columbia and Berkeley, and to police violence against protesters in Chicago, Paris, Mexico City, and elsewhere. In the midst of these acute crises, American activists for Soviet Jewry struggled to raise awareness about a chronic situation as they gathered in business attire for continental breakfast in the Waldorf-Astoria's Starlight Roof banquet room.

The grand finale of the AJCSJ Biennial was supposed to be the adoption of a White Paper on Soviet Jewry, which would then be presented by the organization's top leadership to President Johnson himself. This was the same Lyndon Johnson whom protesters from other movements were taunting with shouts of, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" But for activists in the AJCSJ, presidential authority was still something to be respected, and presidential support something to be courted. No "credibility gap" changed this, nor did the fact that the president had just made himself a lame duck, shocking the country a week earlier with the announcement that he would not seek reelection.

No meeting with Johnson took place. After King's assassination, the White House cancelled. (6) The country was exploding in race riots. Two months later, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ), a "grassroots" group often critical of the AJCSJ's more conservative approach to mobilization, faced a similar problem. (7) SSSJ was moving forward with its plans for a June 9 "Freedom Boat Ride," even though Democratic presidential front-runner Robert E Kennedy had declined an invitation to participate. The event, however, ended up being scuttled by Kennedy's assassination three days before the boat was to set sail. (8) Such, in a nutshell, was the Soviet Jewry movement's 1968. Off the agenda, repeatedly sidelined, and unable to gain traction in a year that is supposed to have been an annus mirabilis for social movements.

How did the American campaign for Soviet Jews, a movement born in and of the 1960s, manage to pass the tumultuous 1968 in relative quiet? (9) And what does this reveal about the movement itself, its relationship to the politics of the New Left, and the relationship between internal factors and external contexts in shaping how the movement unfolded? (10) To address these questions, we look to the work of local and national organizations associated with the "establishment" and "grassroots" wings of this factionalized social movement, especially the "establishment" AJCSJ (reconstituted in 1971 as the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, or NCSJ, both referred to in this paper as "the Conference"), and its rivals, the youth-oriented SSSJ, and adult-led Cleveland Council on Soviet Anti-Semitism (CCSA), which later led the formation of a national "grassroots" umbrella group called the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews (UCSJ, est. 1970, also referred to here as the "Councils"). We examine ways in which the movement was structurally unprepared or ideologically unwilling to undertake certain forms of mobilization in 1968. First, we consider American activists' unpreparedness for the emergence in 1968 of direct protest by Soviet Jews, and their failure to rally a major effort around the headline-grabbing events in the Eastern bloc that they did know of: Prague Spring and Poland's "anti-Zionist campaign." Then, after assessing the relationship of intra-movement factional protests to the politics of 1968, we draw on historian William Sewell's notion of "eventful temporality" to show how the uneventfulness of 1968 for the American Soviet Jewry movement stemmed in part from its rejection of the New Left's strategy of using confrontation to create watershed moments-a rejection rooted in the Soviet Jewry campaign's implicit Cold War liberalism and desire to coopt, not challenge, American governmental power. (11) While this left the struggle for Soviet Jewry on the sidelines in 1968, it enabled the campaign to successfully enlist the US government as an ally in the decades to come.

Before moving to this, however, we set the context for the analysis by explaining the rationale for focusing on 1968, and by clarifying what we do and do not mean when invoking the year as a shorthand (the usage here follows scholars who draw a distinction between "1968" and "the Sixties").

Between 1967, 1968, and "1968"

This article represents an effort to see what light can be shed on the American campaign for Soviet Jews by examining it in relation to the global history of 1968, rather than in relation to the Jewish history of 1967. Some previous scholarship has emphasized the importance of the Six-Day War as a watershed for the Soviet Jewish emigration movement, sometimes even using the year 1967 to bound the research. (12) In explaining a periodization of Soviet Jewry activism that pivots on 1967, Feingold writes, "To understand the next round of the struggle to leave the Soviet Union it is necessary to fathom the full impact of the victory on the mentality of activists within and outside the Soviet Union." (13) The word "mentality" points to a major claim about a Six-Day War effect--that the war's importance to the movement rested primarily in its psychological effects on segments of the Soviet and American Jewish communities, stirring emotions, awakening or deepening Jewish commitments, and inspiring a willingness to act on these in the political arena. Some variants of this approach claim that, more than the actual fighting in the Middle East, it was war-related domestic anti-Zionism in the USSR and the United States that galvanized the movement, fostering a politically conscious Jewish separatism in both countries. In the Soviet Union, where anti-Zionism was government policy, Soviet Jewish separatism was expressed by demanding the freedom to emigrate. In the United States, it was anti-Zionism in the New Left, including in the Black Power movement, that redirected Jewish liberal activism toward causes such as the Soviet Jewry movement, in which the beneficiaries were Jews. (14)

There have been dissents from the claim that the Six-Day War constituted a psychological turning point for the Soviet Jewry movement. Some have argued that the Jewish self-assertion supposedly stimulated by the war was already in evidence in the years prior. (15) Others have challenged the notion that Soviet Jewry activism replaced activism in the causes of the New Left, showing how some groups, such as Jews for Urban Justice, managed to combine both. (16) To these, we might add that the war's most immediate consequence for the movement had little to do with "the mentality of activists." The Soviet Union's decision to sever diplomatic relations with Israel on June 10, 1967 changed the structure of political opportunity that activists faced. On one hand, the loss of its Moscow embassy eliminated Israel's ability to place operatives from its clandestine agency for Soviet Jewish affairs, Nativ, inside the USSR under Foreign Ministry cover. (17) On the other hand, Israel's range of action on such matters had always been constrained by the potential ramifications on diplomatic relations with the...

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