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Focus on Issues Martin Luther King and Soviet Jews

January 8, 1987
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

(Editor’s note: Albert Chernin is the executive vice chairman of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.)

As the observance on January 19 of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. draws closer, I recall arranging for him to address a national telephone hook-up of Soviet Jewry rallies we were organizing in communities nationwide in December 1966. I was doing so in my capacity as the coordinator of the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry, which was then being staffed by NJCRAC.

Despite his very heavy schedule, King enthusiastically accepted our invitation which gave him an opportunity to speak out publicly for the first time on the issue of Soviet Jewry.

Although his schedule kept him from coming to the major rally held at historic Cooper Union in New York where Abraham Lincoln spoke 100 years earlier about a nation half slave, half free, King spoke from Atlanta on the issue of Soviet Jewry in the spirit of Lincoln, and in the spirit of the struggle of the civil rights movement, which he led so nobly.

Sadly, his description of the plight of Soviet Jewry in 1966 is still relevant to the conditions of Soviet Jewry in 1987. He said then:


“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. Individual Jews may in the main be physically and economically secure in Russia, but the absence of opportunity to associate as Jews in the enjoyment of Jewish culture and religious experience becomes a severe limitation upon an individual.

“These deprivations are a part of a person’s emotional and intellectual life. They determine whether he is fulfilled as a human being. 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. Ultimately you suffer a corrosion of your self-understanding and your self-respect.”


Twenty years later the conditions of Soviet Jewry still remain oppressive. Emigration has been virtually ended, reaching the lowest numbers since the doors were slightly opened in early 1967. While Natan Shcharansky and prominent refuseniks such as Eliahu Essas have been permitted to leave, thousands more continue to be denied emigration visas year after year.

The names of more than 11,000 long-term refuseniks were given to the Soviet government by the United States shortly after President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met in Reykjavik last October; still they wait for permission to emigrate, many for more than 10 years in “quiet desperation.” They do so in a climate of open and vicious hostility toward Israel, Zionism and Judaism, expressed in barely disguised anti-Semitism in the Soviet media.

Seeking to learn Hebrew, Jewish history, Jewish culture, and to practice the Jewish religion, they are subjected to various forms of intimidation ranging from surveillance and KGB interrogation to trials and prison. As some Prisoners of Conscience have been released, other Soviet Jewish activists have taken their place.

These harsh realities of life for Soviet Jewry cannot be camouflaged by a more skilled, Western oriented public relations style.


Nevertheless, in the 20 years since King spoke to the Soviet Jewry rallies, there have been significant developments in the struggle for Soviet Jews. Only a few weeks after King spoke, Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin declared in a Paris press conference that those who chose to do so could join their families abroad.

But even with this assertion of family reunion from Kosygin, which was aimed at Western audiences as are the declarations of Gorbachev, no one dreamed at that time that more than 270,000 Soviet Jews would soon live in freedom, most in Israel.

In contrast to 20 years ago, the issue of Soviet Jewry was a critical and, significantly, a formal agenda item in the bilateral negotiations that took place in Reykjavik.


That Soviet Jewry was part of the official agenda represented a reversal of Soviet insistence, dating back decades, that the issue of Soviet Jewry was an internal matter. It represented an affirmation of King’s assertions to those community rallies in 1966 when he said, “The denial of human rights anywhere is a threat to the affirmation of human rights everywhere.”

That the Soviet Union accepted this issue on the agenda, and the Soviets feel compelled to make gestures that attempt to project the appearance of Soviet responsiveness to the issue of human rights, underscores King’s awareness that voices of conscience can overcome the voices of oppression when asserted loudly, vigorously, and ceaselessly. We need to be aware of that charge upon us as we join with millions of other Americans in celebrating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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