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New York, Capital of the Jews

A film and several books spotlight the 1970s—when the city embraced Soviet Jews, and a new world was born

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Coney Island, 1976. (Bruce Gilden/Magnum Photos)

New York’s Soviet Jewry movement warrants close study as a local crucible from which emerged several strikingly different views of the place of Jews in the world. On one level, the cause produced remarkable consensus, not just in Jewish New York but in American politics more generally. The 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which withheld trading privileges from nations that denied their citizens the right of emigration, passed unanimously in both houses of Congress, uniting conservative critics of détente who felt that Henry Kissinger was accommodating the spread of communism with liberals who felt that Kissinger was turning a blind eye to abuses of individual rights.

But the broad popularity of the Soviet Jewry movement also masked less-obvious ideological divisions within Jewish New York. Mainstream Jewish organizations (along with Chabad) were eager not to antagonize the Soviet Union or to burn the diplomatic bridges they relied upon for the transport of Jews to Israel. They were consequently (and perhaps for other reasons as well) loath to be identified with Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet dissident circles, and the discourse of universal human rights.

The young activists behind Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, by contrast, worried neither about burning diplomatic bridges nor about identifying with political dissidents. Many SSSJ members had participated in campus activism around civil rights and the Vietnam War, and even those who approached Soviet Jewry from less liberal and more nationalistic stances were politically and aesthetically attracted to protest politics. For right-wing elements in the movement, picketing consulates was an opportunity to mount a populist challenge to the Manhattan-based Jewish establishment.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the roads out of this motley Soviet Jewry movement led in strikingly divergent directions. One path led to the Mideast, and specifically to the West Bank, where movement veterans built new settlements and pioneered forms of right-wing protest. The late Meir Kahane famously personified this path, but other prominent figures in the Soviet Jewry movement, including Rabbi Avi Weiss and Avital Sharansky, had linked the cause to Gush Emunim and to larger themes of defiant Jewish self-determination. A second path led to the international human rights organizations headquartered in New York (most notably Human Rights Watch), which grew out of attempts to monitor Soviet compliance with Helsinki Accords and extended the core arguments for Soviet Jewish emigration into a new global movement to hold national governments accountable to universal standards of human rights.

Finally, a third path led to a new political strategy for American Jewry. Those members of the establishment who were able to accommodate or absorb the populist impulses that animated the Soviet Jewry movement, while still retaining access to the channels of influence and diplomacy that the movement threatened, emerged from the decade with far greater power and authority in New York Jewish life. Many figures belong in this story (including Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who vied with Avi Weiss to become the rabbinic face of the Soviet Jewry movement), but the main protagonist would certainly be Malcolm Hoenlein, who came from Philadelphia to New York in 1971 to head the new National Conference on Soviet Jewry and ever since has served as the unofficial leader of the Jewish political establishment in America.

These three paths account for many of the careers of leading New York Jews in the decades since Soviet Jewry appeared as a political cause. They also represent three distinct approaches to the role of world opinion in Jewish affairs. The JDL approach is to defy or ignore world opinion, on the grounds that Jews must rely entirely on their own direct action. Meanwhile, the human rights approach has been to mobilize world opinion on behalf of universal norms and standards and then to empower world opinion as a force to which sovereign states (including the Jewish state) must submit. The approach of the Jewish establishment is somewhere in between, caring enough about world opinion to expend enormous resources trying to manage it, but not enough to adopt its standards. Internal debates within Diaspora Jewry over Israel routinely play out these three positions, which came together in a unique movement born at a strange moment in the life of one of the most influential cities in Jewish history.

Today, the legacy of the moment when the campaign for Soviet Jewry unified the warring camps of New York Jews remains legible in places as disparate as Washington’s K Street, The Hague, and Efrat. But it shaped the subsequent history of New York as well.

For New Yorkers, the crisis year of Ed Koch’s election was the decade’s breaking point, or turning point. As Spike Lee reminded viewers in Summer of Sam (1999), the summer of 1977 featured sensational signals of the city’s unraveling. But 1977 also inaugurated a period of self-celebration, epitomized by Scorsese’s New York, New York and its eponymous theme song and especially by the “I Love New York” PR campaign. The Yankees won the World Series that October (ending their longest gap between championships to that date). Playing in a rebuilt stadium under new ownership, the 1977 Yankees would become an apt symbol for a new, post-industrial New York, a global entertainment icon and international tourist destination identified with highly paid superstars.

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glennrik@aol.com says:

Fascinating article, especially to those of us highly involved in the Soviet Jewry movement. As time moves on, we see the history of the movement weighed, analyzed and judged as other major historical events. One factual correction, though: Malcolm Hoenlein was brought to NYC to direct the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry. The National Conference on Soviet Jewry was directed by JerryGoodman. Bottom line, though: we’re proud of our role in changing Jewish and indeed world history — not just being spectators.

Prof. Henkin fails to mention how the influx of Soviet Jews helped save some inner city Jewish neighborhoods from going the way of Brownsville and South Bronx. Brighton Beach, Far Rockaway, Pelham Parkway, Rego Park, Flushing, Washington Heights, all in decline, received a Jewish demographic boost thanks to the “Russians.”

In my borough of Queens, the Lefrak City development lost its synagogue due to white flight. Russian-speaking Bukharian Jews revived it. The same goes for numerous shuls in Brighton Beach, most prominently Brighton Beach Jewish Center, home to the RAJE outreach program.

Russian Jews boosted political conservatism in the New York Jewish scene. Many Russian Jews demonstrated a unique type of ethnic pride that avoided religion but also condemned intermarriage and fiercely stood by Israel.

I have so much more to say. I’ll stop for now.

Bottom line: the majority of Jewish children now live in Israel.

Marina Sapir says:

The article talks about influence of the movement to free Soviet Jews, and does not say anything about influence of Jewish immigrants from Soviet Union in New York in the late 20th century. And this is correct. As New York Jews were united in supporting immigration from Soviet Union, to the same degree they were united in rejection of the Soviet Jews themselves, as a “lower kind”, “under-civilized” Jews. Being a Jew from Soviet Union myself, I learned it from my own experience. I tried many conservative synagogues in Westchester county and New Jersey, and I encountered almost instant rejection, absolute intolerance in every place. And,I do not think, the people had something against me personally (I am better educated than many of the regulars there). Somehow, this intolerance toward my particular kind of Jews is typical for the Jews of the New York region: there were no such problems in Midwest and North East in my experience.

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New York, Capital of the Jews

A film and several books spotlight the 1970s—when the city embraced Soviet Jews, and a new world was born

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