October 2, 2007

An Historic Day

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 11:01 pm by yisraelmedad



Forty years ago, history was set in motion when, for the first time, a sustained independent protest campaign on behalf of the Jews of the then Soviet Union was born.  It eventually broadened to include establishment bodies with their very self-important and self-appointed Jewish lay leaders, spread across the globe, infiltrated the Soviet Union and overcame fierce and invidious Israel government opposition.

 On Friday, May 1, 1964, in response to a passionate call by Yaakov Birnbaum who literally went knocking on the doors of  student dormitories, a call that was passed from mouth to ear within three weeks, more than 1000 Jewish high school and university students, including myself, gathered on a Manhattan street to demonstrate.  We carried signs asking not just that Soviet Jews be allowed to observe religious traditions, an issue that had been on the agenda for the past three years, but we demanded, forthrightly and unyieldingly, that the Jews be granted freedom and the right to emmigrate. A few articles had been published in previous years on the subject of the Jews of Russia and their oppression, several attempts to construct protest movements had been launched, notably  and there had even been an isolated demonstration in 1962, led by Bernard Keback a student at Columbia University, in response to what was perceived as a grave religious crisis of a shortage of matzot in the Soviet Union. But all had either petered out or been halted due to the interference from “those who knew better”, either Israeli diplomats or ultra-orthodox circles.  History would know start from this May 1 of 1964. Truthfully, I am still not sure if we felt then that we were involved in something one could term “historic”.  I do not think that we marchers, circling around and around on that cool day with our placards, providing quizzical onlookers that make up the pedestrian traffic of New York’s streets with yet another Manhattan event to shake their heads at, grasped that we were setting off a chain of actions that would lead to the collapse of a mighty empire.   We would be the girder upon which a bridge would be built over which over more than a million Jews would gain their liberty.  They would learn of their people’s heritage, language, customs and many would come home to Israel.  They would become ‘refusedniks’, they would be interrogated, followed and evetually sent to jail or exiled into the Gulag system.  Several were threatened with death sentences.  Unassuming Jews became heroes, figures to be idolized.  Non-Jews were brought in as well as politicans, actors, playwrights, cultural icons.   If Elie Weisel had written of Jews of silence, we aspired that it was our responsibility to make sure that we were not the ones he was accusing of being silent in the face of the oppression and trampling of human rights. That May 1 demonstration eventually snowballed into the creation of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ), directed with intense devotion by Glenn Richter, which revitalized the Zionist and Jewish youth, then witnessing the civil rights struggle for the American Blacks in the south and the beginnings of the anti-Vietnam movement.  In a sense, our participation in SSSJ’s activities also evolved into our own personal liberation as well.  The hours spent out of classes, the returning home late, the constant volunteering and the courting of arrest in some of the more activist doings we conceived of all contributed to the formation of a camaraderie of a special youth society.  In my case, I met my future wife when I sat down next to her at a sidewalk sitdown on Tisha B’Av 1968.  Our first informal courting was conducted at SSSJ rallies for over half a year. Israel’s 1967 victory proved to be a virtual flame propellant.  Suddenly, we really did feel that we were participating in historic times.  The voices coming out from behind the Iron Curtain drew their strength from the new sense of Jewish identity and pride of that time.  In March 1970, Yasha Kazakov (Kedmi) sat out across from the United Nations, with snow on the ground, wrapped in my sleeping bag and for nine days conducted a hunger-strike to achieve the emmigration of his family.  That, too, was an independent operation, aided by Bernie Deutsch. Later, in November 1976, during my stay in Britain as youth emmissary to the Betar Zionist youth movement, I was privileged, together with the late George Evnine,  to be sent on a mission to Moscow. I conferred with Barabara Oberman who had founded the “Thirty-Fives” Women Campaign and, as per instructions, visited Michael Sherbourne for a briefing as well as to receive the kopeck coins to be used for the phone boxes. Unfortunately, all what I had intended to pass on to Soviet Jewry activists, books, records, tapes and religious items, was impounded at Sheremetyevo airport but George’s bags got through.   Followed at times by five KGB agents, we visited central figures to coordinate certain future actions.  We deliberated with Natan Scharansky, Alexander Lerner, Ida Nudel, Dina Beilina and others.  We smuggled out pictures Scharansky wished to have published in the West.  Little did we know that a half a year later, he would be arrested and submerged in prison. History was made and it effectively started on May 1, 1964.  We should recall that moment.  And I am proud I was there.


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