OPINION: The British and the exodus of Soviet Jewry

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OPINION: The British and the exodus of Soviet Jewry

Dr. John Cooper examines the role Anglo-Jewry played in the campaign to rescue almost 2 million Soviet Jews

1972. A tearful reunion after 20 years between a brother and sister, who just arrived from Russia, at Lod Airport. Wikipedia.
1972. A tearful reunion after 20 years between a brother and sister, who just arrived from Russia, at Lod Airport. Wikipedia.

Events in Russia and the Ukraine are in the news daily, but a few years ago the Cold War and the dramatic circumstances in which a vast number of Jews left the Soviet Union were fast fading from memory.

When I told someone in their twenties, who was a committed younger member of the community, that I was writing this book, he exclaimed that he thought that only American Jews had accomplished the exodus of Jews from Eastern Europe and that British Jews had little to do with it. My book is a small attempt to jolt this loss of memory.

By 1980, the Soviet Union was becoming a much more educated society than it was before the Second World War and there was a huge influx of more qualified individuals into the labour market.  But after 1945 under Stalin and Khrushchev, Jews were being squeezed out of positions in the elite – the Communist party, the security services and the Foreign Ministry, though they were still concentrated in large numbers in scientific institutions and the free professions.

Dr John Cooper’s book on Soviet Jewry.

Synagogues were being closed, the teaching of Judaism and Jewish culture was forbidden, and there was rising antisemitism. Two groups tended to develop dissenting views: scientists and writers, among whom there were a large group of Soviet Jews.

As early as 1952, the Israeli government set up a secret organization, the Lishka, for the in-gathering of the remnants of Russian Jewry, whom they hoped would help to consolidate the state. By fortuitous circumstances, they were aided by the student revolt in 1968 and the Women’s liberation movement.

Soon Jewish students formed the Universities Committee for Soviet Jewry which staged marches on to the Soviet embassy in London and organized a parliamentary motion which 340 MPs signed.

Following this in 1971, Barbara Oberman founded the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry, better known as the 35’s, which was soon joined by Doreen Gainsford. Attractive young Jewish women demonstrating in the streets and being mentioned in the national newspapers and the BBC was something new in Anglo- Jewish politics; and somewhat resented by the somewhat sleepy male dominated Board of Deputies.

Dr. John Cooper; pic: Zaki Cooper

In a vain attempt to curb the activity of the students and the women, the Board established the National Campaign for Soviet Jewry which acted as an umbrella organization. At this point in the 1970s, Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader, wanted the Western powers to recognize the post-War boundaries of the Soviet Union and its satellites. In exchange, the Western leaders demanded more cultural and educational exchanges and human rights, including the right to emigrate. In broad terms this was agreed by the Helsinki Final Act which was signed in 1975.

The Soviet Jewry campaign now proceeded under the two slogans of “Let My People Go” and human rights; and it was the human rights slogan which was wonderfully exploited first by Doreen Gainsford in trips to Europe and then by Rita Eker and Margaret Rigal, the new leaders of the 35s, in frequent exchanges with Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister.

With Gorbachev’s accession to power in 1985, the stalemate seemed to continue until Anatoly Shcharansky’s release in February 1986, but even so there was little movement on the Soviet side.

What made Gorbachev change his mind and permit almost two million Soviet Jews to emigrate, when he still seemed to be working with his state security apparatus and there was the occasional antisemitic barb?

He still seemed reluctant to let Jews out of the country, as he needed their technological and managerial talent.  Yet he also believed in some form of the rule of law. Was it the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl and the financial cost of rectifying the damage? Was it his slow and muddled approach to instituting a free market or his inability to control nationalist passions among the Soviet Union’s minorities?

How effective was the international campaign for Soviet Jewry and how successful was the issue of human rights? What part did Anglo-Jewry play in the overall campaign? I try to address these and other issues in my book and focus on some of the forgotten leaders of the campaign and their foot soldiers.

  • Dr John Cooper is the author of “The British Campaign for Soviet Jewry 1966-1991: Human Right and Exit Permits” (2023).    
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