In 1987, on December 6, 250,000 people attended the largest march about the Jewish community. The “Freedom Sunday” March in Washington, DC, was the height of the Soviet Jewry advocacy campaign. On the eve of the first Reagan-Gorbachev Summit Meeting in Washington, American Jews came out to support Soviet Jewry. Much of this fight for Soviet Jewry’s freedom to leave the USSR revolved around their imprisonment of Jewish activist Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky, whom the Soviets arrested in 1977 on charges of treason and spying for the US. In Washington, the United States government viewed this act as a Soviet challenge to the Helsinki Final Act humanitarian provisions. The Soviet Jewry movement originated in the rights movement of the sixties, and its origins were just as radical until it gained the support of the majority of the American Jewish community.
Fast forward 36 years: on November 14, 2023, American Jews gathered in the National Mall with a rallying cry to free Soviet Jewry, and 290,000 Jews rallied in Washington, and almost the same amount watched through the live stream in a “March for Israel,” which became the biggest Jewish issue-related rally in American Jewish history. The march was a cry to get the 240 hostages released from Hamas to fight the rising antisemitism and the brutality of Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel. The march had the aptly put tagline, “Americans March for Israel, March to Free Hostages, March against Antisemitism.” While the march to freedom for Soviet Jewry was over 25 years in the making, the worst attack on Jewry since the Holocaust has spawned an accelerated movement with the same level of unity as it did for Soviet Jewry, with American and Diaspora Jews seeing a 400 percent rise in antisemitism in the communities.
One featured speaker was Sharansky, whom Tablet called “the world’s leading anti-Soviet, dissident Zionist, and pro-democracy voice.” In his stirring speech, he spoke of Diaspora Jewry: “They challenged the most powerful and most cruel dictatorship of those days. And that’s why many people thought that their struggle, our struggle is doomed.” Continuing, Sharansky expressed, “But the fact is that we never thought we were alone … when in the long years in prison, I was told again and again that I’m alone, that I’m abandoned, that we failed, it was enough for me simply to remember all those faces of Jews from America, from Britain, from Canada, who were coming to us to Moscow to support us, to understand that KGB is lying.” He recalled his time in prison, “ … the outcome of our struggle can only be our victory.”
Political scientist Zvi Gitelman in his essay, “THE PSYCHOLOGICAL AND POLITICAL CONSEQUENCES OF THE SIX-DAY WAR IN THE U.S.S.R.,” aptly sums up the effect the Six-Day War had for Diaspora Jewry when he writes, “PERHAPS NOWHERE ELSE in the Jewish Diaspora was the Six-Day War to have as revolutionary and long-lasting effect as it did in the Soviet Union.” Israel’s policies, controversies, and wars damaged its reputation in the diaspora after the 1967 war. Generations who witnessed the emergence of a Jewish state passed away, and those born after 1948 took it for granted.
In the Soviet Union, Zionism was perceived as both racist and imperialistic. Following the events of 1967, Israel came to be regarded as a pariah state. Soviet Jews lacked a Jewish community, financial resources, and political backing in relation to Israel. Despite various challenges, Israel’s survival, defense, and accomplishments have garnered widespread pride. The Soviet Union launched an anti-Zionist campaign that associated Jews with Israel and Zionism. This campaign negatively impacted Jews following Israel’s victory in the June 1967 war, which caused embarrassment for the USSR. The Soviet authorities regarded Zionism as a fascist menace comparable to Nazism. One Soviet expressed, “There are many forms of fascism. Zionism is one of them and it is no better than Nazism.” The comparison of Israel and Nazism, despite differing opinions, sparked widespread resentment, as Israel was deemed a racist state and a leader of the “imperialist” camp.
Gitelman listed several books that equated Zionism with Fascism, “Fashizm podGoluboi Zvezdoi Goluboi Zvezdoi (Fascism Under the Blue Star), published in Russian in 1971; Ostorozhno, Sionizm! (Caution, Zionism!), published in several languages in 1970; Sionizm-Protivnik Mira i Sotsial’nogo Progress (Zionism Enemy of Peace and Social Progress), published in Kiev in 1984; and Prestupleniem i Obmanom: Metody i Sredstva Sionizma v Osuchchestvlenii Politiki Neokolonializma (By Crimes and Lies: Methods and Means of Zionism in the Implementation of the Policy of Neocolonialism), Kiev, 1989.” (228) Gitelman explained, “Most works like those went beyond political polemic and criticism; much of their content could fairly be described as anti-Semitic.”
Soviet Jews were positively influenced by Israel’s victory in the 1967 conflict and experienced a sense of disappointment due to the USSR’s backing of Israel’s adversaries. The severance of relations with Israel in 1967 was perceived by Soviet Jews as an anti-Semitic campaign. The rapid economic growth and global political backing experienced after 1967 came to a halt due to the 1973 Yom Kippur War. However, this conflict played a significant role in encouraging Jewish emigration from the USSR to Israel. In 1967, Jewish individuals residing in the USSR made the decision to emigrate as a result of the USSR’s backing of Arab states in the Middle East. These states were provided with various forms of support, including weaponry, military training, and political and economic aid. The Arab states in question had expressed their intention to eliminate the state of Israel. Following the events of 1967, a significant number of Jews expressed a desire to emigrate from the Soviet Union to Israel. This led to incidents involving the attempted hijacking of a Soviet plane, which garnered international attention. Consequently, the Soviet government responded by imposing death sentences on the individuals involved. The initial success of the émigrés resulted in a significant influx of Jewish migrants to Israel. In 1971, more than 13,000 Jews migrated to Israel, followed by over 30,000 in the subsequent two years. Moreover, between 1968 and 1980, a total of 160,000 Jews left the Soviet Union to establish permanent residence elsewhere.
The Soviet government implemented controlled emigration between 1971 and 1972 in response to Western pressure for the unrestricted emigration of Jews and other individuals. From 1951 to 1991, the Soviet Union permitted the emigration of approximately 1.8 million Jews, predominantly to Israel, and around 550,000 ethnic Germans, primarily to the capitalist Federal Republic of Germany. Armenians, Greeks, and Evangelical Christians migrated primarily for the purpose of reuniting with their families. The Soviet Union acknowledged the phenomenon of emigration cycles, which resulted in a continuous influx of individuals seeking to leave the country due to the process of chain migration.
The government implemented measures such as education taxes and denial of exit visas in order to control emigration. The “refuseniks” issue garnered global attention. The international system has undergone a transformation, enabling various entities such as “nonstate actors, interest groups, multinational corporations, and international organizations” to assume more influential roles in advocacy. The rise in education and mass media has led to greater public engagement in global affairs and enhanced political efficacy. Following the Yom Kippur War in 1974, a greater number of Jewish individuals emigrated from the Soviet Union to Israel. Following the termination of diplomatic ties between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and Israel in 1967, the former implemented a policy of disallowing direct flights between the two nations. However, there was a notable rise in Soviet Jewish immigration to the United States. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the worsening of US-Afghan relations, the Soviet authorities denied many emigration requests. As a result, a considerable number of individuals, known as “refuseniks,” sought to leave the USSR. In the 1980s, approximately 90% of those permitted to emigrate from the USSR chose to settle in the United States.
In 2017, the Jewish Agency for Israel Chair Natan Sharansky issued a Jerusalem Day statement that summed up the awakening the Six-Day War had for Soviet Jewry. “Israel’s reunification of the city in the 1967 Six Day War inspired Soviet Jews to ‘start our struggle for freedom.’ ‘This struggle, supported by Jews around the world, ultimately brought down the Iron Curtain and enabled a million Jews to come home to Israel.” In a 2022 Jerusalem Post article entitled, “How to stay Jewish thanks to Zionism,” Sharansky summed up his journey to Zionism, “When I grew up in the Soviet Union, I knew that I was Jewish because it was written in the ID of my parents. But there was nothing positive in this word — no tradition, no religion, no language, no history. The only Jewish thing in my youth was antisemitism — both in the street and in the official policy of restrictions. Only after the Six Day War in 1967 did I become a proud Zionist. And through Zionism, I discovered the power of Jewish history, culture and tradition, and later in prison, religion.”
Natan Sharansky, originally named Anatoly Shcharansky, is a former child chess prodigy and a graduate of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. In 1973, he requested an exit visa from the Soviet Union. The applicant’s denial was attributed to his possession of classified Soviet national security information, however, the Soviet Union faced greater consequences by compelling him to remain. Due to his role as a translator for physicist Andrei Sakharov, who was targeted by the KGB in 1972 for his opposition to nuclear proliferation, Shransky faced mistrust from Soviet bureaucrats and security personnel. Sharansky’s initial arrest was a result of President Richard Nixon’s significant visit to the Soviet Union, leading to a 15-day detention. Sharansky was released on July 3, 1974. He married his wife Avital on July 4th, and she departed for Israel the following day. They were separated for twelve years, which was significantly longer than the few months initially anticipated by Sharansky. In 1976, Sharansky established the Moscow-Helsinki Watch Group and became a prominent advocate for the expanding Jewish migration movement.
In 1977, Sharansky was arrested on charges of high treason, specifically for allegedly acting as a CIA agent and engaging in espionage activities on behalf of the United States. He received a 13-year sentence of forced labor, during which he spent nine years in Siberia, while his wife, Avital, campaigned for his release. He emerged as a prominent figure in the movement advocating for the liberation of Soviet Jews, and played a central role in organizing the Sunday Solidarity Marches that took place in significant Jewish communities. Avital’s efforts resulted in her husband becoming a prominent figure representing both Soviet oppression and human resilience on a global scale. This, in turn, motivated influential leaders such as Ronald Reagan to actively support his release. Mikhail Gorbachev ordered the release of Sharansky on February 11, 1986, following pressure from Ronald Reagan. Consequently, Sharansky was able to reunite with his wife Avital in Israel. The Sharanskys’ efforts, both within and outside the Soviet Union, contributed to the dismantling of the Soviet regime, which held power over a significant population of one billion people. This regime stood in stark opposition to the ideals of American freedom.
One featured speaker was Sharansky, whom Tablet called “the world’s leading anti-Soviet, dissident Zionist, and pro-democracy voice.” In his stirring speech, he spoke of Diaspora Jewry: “They challenged the most powerful and most cruel dictatorship of those days. And that’s why many people thought that their struggle, our struggle is doomed.” Continuing, Sharansky expressed, “But the fact is that we never thought we were alone … when in the long years in prison, I was told again and again that I’m alone, that I’m abandoned, that we failed, it was enough for me simply to remember all those faces of Jews from America, from Britain, from Canada, who were coming to us to Moscow to support us, to understand that KGB is lying.”
In his memoir “Never Alone,” Sharansky recalls that the Six Day War occurred while he was taking his final exams at the Institute in Moscow. The outcome of the June 1967 conflict, in which Israel, a small and besieged Jewish state, triumphed against significant challenges, had a profound impact on me. However, it took me some time to fully comprehend its significance. Sharansky collaborated with Gil Troy, a professor at McGill University, to author his autobiography. The release occurred in September 2020. Troy refers to the book as a “memoir-festo” as it explores not only Sharansky’s personal experiences but also delves into the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora Jewish community. The book highlights both the similarities and differences between the two, with a particular emphasis on the strong bond that exists between them.
Sharansky’s appreciation for Israel was awakened by reading a Russian translation of Leon Uris’s Exodus. The book’s content sparked Sharansky’s interest in Jewish history and Israel, leading him to identify himself as an integral part of this narrative. Sharansky’s research revealed that the involvement of Russian Jews, including their uncle who had been missing, had a substantial impact on the Zionist movement and the establishment of Israel in 1948. “Looking at that famous picture, of the three soldiers who helped liberate the Western Wall in 1967, I realized they were my age too. It could have been me.”
Sharansky recounted, “As a dissident spokesman, I served as a clearinghouse for activists, distributing books and material smuggled from American Jewish organizations to Moscow. I sent one message to a New York contact, advising, ‘Send us one hundred Exoduses and we’ll have a Zionist Revolution here!… Even those of us discovering these exciting new links to Israel and our extended Jewish family still held on to the familiar: our ambitions to succeed… Israel’s heroics in the June 1967 war helped me discover how much I was missing by living in a world without identity.” Sharansky recalled, “Book by book, revelation by revelation, encountering my identity, my history, my people, and my country, Israel, I scrutinized my psychological prison of Soviet survivalism. The more I learned about Israel, Judaism, and Jewish history, the more I realized I could be part of something bigger than myself, pursuing missions more important than getting the right grade or the great job.”
The Six-Day War marked a significant turning point for Sharansky, as it led to his psychological liberation in embracing Judaism and Zionism. Subsequently, he embarked on a demanding and challenging journey towards achieving physical freedom in Israel. Sharansky recalled that a pivotal moment in his life was when he approached his employer to request a letter verifying his employment, which was necessary for his emigration visa application to Israel. “At that moment, my life as a loyal Soviet citizen ended. My life as a doublethinker, which I had consciously begun at age five the day Stalin died, was over. The professional world I had built for myself, my castle of science, collapsed instantly. Now, I could say what I thought, do what I said, and say what I did. Finally — thirteen years before my release from prison and my move to a free, democratic Israel — I was liberated. Having made the most difficult choice, all the others that followed would feel easier.”
However, Sharansky recalled, “I was lucky. In the Soviet Union, I grew up deprived of freedom and identity. Then, after 1967, I discovered them both. In embracing my Jewishness, I inherited a 3,900-year-old identity — the history, values, ideas, and country that would shape me. That breakthrough propelled me to end a life of doublethink — the constant juggling of maneuvers and lies just to survive, the push to get ahead without really going anywhere. Only by ending that sterile life could I speak freely. Once I was no longer afraid, I realized how enjoyable it was to be free.” In a Fanthom Journal interview with Sharansky, he elaborated, “I soon realised that if you make a switch in your mind, this unique history of the Jewish people can also be your history — that you do not have to start your history from 1917 and all the awful events which happened after this date, but from the Egyptian exodus and even earlier. When you discover a different history, and realise that other people also want to be part of it, suddenly you have ideas which are bigger than your own physical survival.”
Upon his memoir’s release, Sharansky had an interview with the Jewish Insider entitled, “From prison to politics, Natan Sharansky never loses hope the former Jewish Agency chairman’s latest book is a treatise on the bond between Israel and the Jewish people.” Sharansky says the Soviet movement, considered a united moment between the Diaspora and Israel, was quite contentious, with differing viewpoints. In the article, he clarified, “The global Jewish movement to free Soviet Jewry may be seen as a peak of Jewish unity, but the truth is ‘more complex.’ Sharansky explains, “It’s quite an illusion to think that then it was all unity, and now it is all division.”
The book examines the significant discord between Soviet Jewish dissidents and Jewish organizations supporting their emigration to the United States. Some of these organizations opposed such emigration, instead advocating for emigration to Israel. According to Sharansky, The movement “was full of contradictions and competing Jewish and Israeli organizations who didn’t trust one another, who sometimes even hated one another, who were coming from very different positions. But in the end we all had one aim, and we were united — at least that’s what it looked like to the KGB: one monolithic movement.”
The Soviet Jewry movement unified Jews from the Diaspora, particularly in North America, and transcended denominational divisions. Sociologist Jonathan Woocher referred to it as a component of Civil Judaism, which can be understood as an American Jewish civil religion. The movement advocating for the liberation and emigration of Soviet Jews had broader implications for the Diaspora and Israel in terms of demographics. It demonstrated that despite internal divisions, the community could unite around a shared objective beyond the collective memory of the Holocaust. World Jewry was motivated to take action rather than remain passive. The Six-Day War had a profound impact on Soviet Jewry, leading to a significant shift in the support for Israel among the global Jewish community. This support surpassed even the level observed during Israel’s declaration of independence and subsequent military successes. Since October 7, there has been a notable display of solidarity towards Israel in response to a movement opposing oppression, cruelty, and antisemitism. The rally held yesterday aimed to capture the spirit of the 1987 rally at the same location, bringing together people from different backgrounds and political affiliations. We anticipate that its success will be comparable to the movement aimed at liberating Soviet Jewry.
The Gorbachev era initially fostered the growth of Jewish life in the Soviet Union. However, subsequent increases in antisemitism and the emergence of pogrom threats significantly altered the circumstances for the Jewish population. The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh began in 1988, accompanied by demands for independence in the Baltic republics and the emergence of anti-Semitic slogans in Russia. The implementation of economic reforms and the relaxation of government control in Slavic countries raised concerns about potential disorder and widespread acts of violence. The Jewish emigration from the USSR experienced a notable rise as a result of escalating instability and the existence of familial and social connections in Israel and the United States. The number of emigrants increased from 8,155 in 1987 to 18,965 in 1988, and further rose to 71,217 in 1989. In 1989, immigration restrictions prompted a significant number of individuals to emigrate to Israel. In 1990, a total of 213,042 individuals, comprising both Jews and non-Jewish relatives, emigrated from the USSR, with 181,759 choosing to settle in Israel. From 1991 to 1994, approximately 500,000 Jews emigrated from countries that were formerly under Soviet rule.
The Soviet Jewry movement, initiated in the sixties by students and political dissidents by the eighties, became a significant issue in American Jewish life. The Soviet Jewry movement strengthened Jewish identity, bridged the right-left divide on Israel among American Jews and political leaders, and united American Jews because of human and Jewish rights. Sharansky was one of the honored guests at the December 1987 March and a symbol of the movement’s success, and it was only fitting that he would be a key speaker at the March for Israel. We only hope that we can sustain yesterday’s unity and fight for Israel, for the hostages, and combat this rising antisemitism. As Sharansky expressed yesterday, “The picture of one Jewish fighting family was always in my head. And that is why it was so clear that one fighting family, a family that is so strong, which has so much love. And know that there is only one outcome in this battle: Our victory.”
Beckerman, Gal. “The Soviet Jewry Movement in America | My Jewish Learning.” My Jewish Learning, www.myjewishlearning.com/history/Modern_History/1948-1980/America/Soviet_Jewry_Movement.shtml.
Gitelman, Zvi. “Identity, Israel, and Immigration.” Jewish Identities in Postcommunist Russia and Ukraine: An Uncertain Ethnicity. Cambridge, 2012, pp. 234–264.
Lederhendler, Eli. “The Six-Day War and World Jewry.” University Press of Maryland, 2000.
Samuels, David. “A Fourth of July Story Independence Day is doubly special for the legendary refusenik Natan Sharansky and his family.” Tablet Magazine, June 30, 2016
Sharansky, Natan, and Gil Troy. Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People. Public Affairs, 2020.
Sharansky, Natan. How to stay Jewish thanks to Zionism Only after the Six Day War in 1967 did I become a proud Zionist.” Jerusalem Post, October 15, 2022. https://www.jpost.com/judaism/article-719597
Smilk, Carin M. “Natan Sharansky: ‘We’ll Defeat Our Enemies Today’ — JNS.org.” JNS.org, Nov. 14, 2023, www.jns.org/natan-sharansky-well-defeat-our-enemies-today.
Spiro, Amy. “From Prison to Politics, Natan Sharansky Never Loses Hope.” Jewish Insider, Sept. 1, 2020, jewishinsider.com/2020/09/natan-sharansky-never-loses-hope.
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Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS, is a historian, librarian, journalist, and artist. She has done graduate work in Jewish Education at the Melton Centre of Jewish Education of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and in Jewish Studies at McGill University. She has a BA in History and Art History and a Masters in Library and Information Studies from McGill. She has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies, where she focused Medieval and Modern Judaism. Her research area is North American Jewish history, and her thesis was entitled “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Antisemitism, 1860–1913.” Ms. Goodman has been researching and writing about antisemitism in North American Jewish History, and she has reported on the current antisemitic climate and anti-Zionism on campus for over fifteen years. She is the author of “A Constant Battle: McGill University’s Complicated History of Antisemitism and Now anti-Zionism.”
Ms. Goodman is also the author “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896,” and “The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish Goal of Whiteness in the South,” among others. She contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is the former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com, where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She currently blogs at Medium, where she was a top writer in history, and regularly writes on “On This Day in History (#OTD in #History)” Feature. Her scholarly articles can be found on Academia.edu.