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Sarah Schmidt on The Struggle for Soviet Jewry in American Politics: Israel versus the American Jewish Establishment

Filed under: U.S. Policy, World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 18:3-4 (Fall 2006)


Are We One?


Reviewed by Sarah Schmidt


Fred A. Lazin, Lynn and Lloyd Family Professor of Local Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, has written a well-researched and documented case study of the struggle between Israeli authorities and the American Jewish establishment over where Jewish émigrés from the Soviet Union should be allowed and encouraged to resettle, once Soviet policy changed to allow free emigration. He uses this study to address the broader issue of ethnicity and American politics, particularly the changing role of Jews in American politics during the past half-century. In doing so, Lazin provides important information and insight about how American Jewry came of age as a result of the “Free Soviet Jewry” movement, as its style and behavior changed to reflect the group’s acceptance, security, wealth, and newfound influence in the corridors of political power.

Most of the volume deals with the period from 1967 to 1989, before the breakdown of the Soviet Union and Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision to open its gates to anyone wishing to leave. Initially the Israeli government and most American Jewish leaders viewed the Russian Jewish émigré issue as one of aliyah-immigration to Israel. Most Soviet Jews, however, preferred to go to the United States, and the American Jewish community responded by pressuring their government to admit these Jews as “refugees” and to help them find housing, jobs, and health care.

In response, Israel demanded that American Jewish organizations stop working on behalf of the Soviet Jews. It claimed their aliyah was essential to Israel’s continued existence, and emphasized that past absorption of many unskilled Jews from Arab countries gave Israel the right to receive the highly educated Russian Jews.

This situation created a dilemma for American Jewish leaders: they were forced to choose between Israel’s expressed need and their own residual sense of guilt about the passivity of the American Jewish community during the 1930s, when America had refused entry to Jews fleeing Hitler’s Germany. The solution they found was the principle of “freedom of choice”: émigrés should be allowed to decide for themselves where they wanted to settle. Despite their ambivalence, for the most part Israeli political leaders tolerated the Americans’ decision; the Soviet Jewry issue apparently had a lower priority than maintaining good relations both with American Jewry and the American government.

Lazin’s study incorporates and acknowledges a vast amount of published scholarship. Perhaps his major contribution, however, is the access he gained, beginning in the late 1980s and continuing through the next decade, to extensive archival material both in the Jewish Agency and from a range of mainstream American Jewish organizations, as well as from the files of Ralph Goldman, former director of the American Joint Distribution Committee. In addition, he lists the names of eighty-two Jewish community activists whom he interviewed, both in Israel and the United States. For the present at least, Lazin’s volume seems to represent the most extensive and authoritative account of the subject to date.

American Jewish Leaders Define Their Political Interests

Most of this volume focuses on the strategies Americans used to put the Soviet Jewry issue on the public agenda, the conflict over turf within the American Soviet Jewry movement, and the struggle between Israel and the American Jewish establishment. Lazin concludes, however, by discussing how his study highlights changes within the American Jewish community since the 1930s, a community now heavily influenced both by the Holocaust and the existence of a Jewish state.

In the 1930s only one major Jewish organization, the American Jewish Committee, had access to the Roosevelt administration. By the 1970s many Jewish organizations, with varying degrees of influence on Congress and the administration, were actively working for Soviet Jewry. Lazin also notes the difference in the quality of the leadership. The top echelon of the American Jewish Committee consisted of wealthy and successful men whose involvement with the Committee was often limited. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, the organizations had an overabundance of qualified lay leadership, including women, who often took leave from other pursuits to devote their full time to the Soviet Jewry movement.

Perhaps most important, during the 1930s establishment Jewish leaders were still insecure as Jews and fearful of an anti-Semitic backlash, and so preferred “quiet diplomacy” to public activism. By the 1970s, however, Soviet Jewry advocates felt comfortable both as Jews and as Americans, and, during the Cold War, saw no conflict between American and Jewish concerns. After all, American Jews were seeking support for a population being persecuted by a communist regime, and even American presidents were speaking with Soviet leaders about the Jews’ right to emigrate. Additionally, the Israeli victory in the 1967 Six Day War had given American Jews a new sense of pride and confidence as they identified with their Israeli counterparts, affecting their political behavior.

During the late 1980s, however, when Gorbachev proposed free immigration for Soviet Jews, the American Jewish establishment retreated from its support for “freedom of choice” and agreed to a yearly quota of forty thousand Soviet Jewish refugees allowed to enter the United States based on family reunification. They did so because the economic burden of resettlement, coupled with increasingly limited federal funding, led to a more positive perspective on Israel’s willingness to accept all Soviet Jewish émigrés. After 1985, as they became more concerned about the future of their own community, American Jewish leaders learned to distinguish between their collective memory of the Holocaust and current pragmatic political issues. The “Israeli option,” therefore, had now become attractive.

When the American Jewish leadership abandoned “freedom of choice,” then, it did not do so in response to Israeli demands. Instead, it succumbed to economic limitations at a time when Israel’s centrality had given way to internal concerns, particularly the anxiety about rising intermarriage and assimilation. In the broadest sense, therefore, Lazin’s historical study may provide a useful guide to what could happen in the future should American Jewish and Israeli interests once again conflict.

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 DR. SARAH SCHMIDT is senior lecturer in modern Jewish history and Zionist history at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she also teaches an honors seminar, “The American Jew  and the Israeli Jew: A Comparative Analysis.”