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

By Kelner, Shaul | American Jewish History, January 2018 | Go to article overview

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


Kelner, Shaul, American Jewish History


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. …

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