Rusty Holzer
Principal & Chairman of Worth Capital

Bayard Rustin – Hero of Soviet Jewry

Bayard Rustin at news briefing on the Civil Rights March on Washington (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Bayard Rustin at news briefing on the Civil Rights March (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

In February, we marked the 38th anniversary of Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky’s arrival in Israel. After nine years of imprisonment in Russia, Sharansky’s new life as an Israeli citizen began in 1986, just one year prior to the death of Bayard Rustin, a civil rights activist who was instrumental in laying the groundwork that ultimately freed Soviet Jewry.

Rustin became aware of the struggle of Soviet Jews in the ’60s. He had been a principal organizer of the March on Washington in 1963, where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous I Have a Dream Speech. Rustin was introduced to Rabbi Joachim Prinz, leader of the American Jewish Committee and founding chairman of the March. He convinced Rustin to join the movement to free Soviet Jewry.

The discrimination that Jews living behind the Iron Curtain faced in the areas of education, housing, and employment reminded Rustin of the experiences of Black Americans in the civil rights era. He sympathized with their desire to live freely in Israel. Rustin became a leading voice in the effort to help them emigrate.

In 1966, Rustin led the Ad hoc Commission on Rights of Soviet Jews organized by the Conference on the Status of Soviet Jews. The commission documented the stories of Soviet Jews regarding their life and their treatment in the Soviet Union, and presented them to the United Nations. The Commission pressured the international community to force the Soviet Union to allow Jews to practice their religion freely and to leave the USSR.

The testimonies which emerged from the Commission were compiled into a book entitled Redemption! Jewish freedom letters from Russia, and Rustin penned the foreword. He later said that his goal was to “universalize the struggle of three million Russian Jews.” He understood that the “cultural genocide aimed at Russian Jews is like slow death and will prove for many years most difficult to overcome.”

Rustin had a deep appreciation for Israel and its underlying values of justice and democracy.  When legislation was proposed to offer 30,000 visas that would enable Soviet Jews to emigrate to the United States, his response was clear, “I want Soviet Jews to make their own decision where they wish to go. Israel is the oasis of democracy in the Mid-East, and if they feel they wish to live there, it should be their right to do so.”

In 1974, Rustin worked alongside Senator Henry Jackson of Washington to develop the Jackson-Vanik amendment. Designed with Soviet Jewry in mind, this amendment required America to cease normal trade relations with countries that denied emigration. Senator Jackson even lobbied personally for Sharansky’s freedom.

As we reflect on the antisemitism that led to Sharansky’s imprisonment and to the “cultural genocide aimed at Russian Jews,” we must contend with the new wave of antisemitism that is roiling the west. As individuals who have learned from the mistakes of past generations, and as upstanding people who know that hate and discrimination of any kind is intolerable, we must band together to stop the insidious spread of Jew hatred. We look to brave and committed role models like Bayard Rustin to give us the courage to stand up for what is right.

About the Author
Rusty Holzer is the Principal & Chairman of Worth Capital, a private investment firm. Rusty is a graduate of Harvard University, and a highly skilled equestrian who represented the United States Virgin Islands in the 1992 Summer Olympics.
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