Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Special Interview Consciousness Raising on the Issue of Soviet Jewry

September 1, 1977
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

A representative of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, who recently completed a speaking tour to almost 40 college campuses, mainly in the Midwest and Southeast, reported that students and professors are very much concerned with the plight of Soviet Jews once they are made aware of the problem, but are very often uninformed.

“It’s obvious there is a tremendous degree of concern once people know what’s going on and a great readiness to engage in activity,” said Larry Fetterman of the SSSJ, in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “When they heard what they could do, there was a huge amount of enthusiasm,” he said.

He added: “One of the things I’ve learned…is that it can become painfully apparent that the national and regional organizations working on behalf of Soviet Jewry have failed to communicate to Jews in their communities the seriousness of the situation for our people in the Soviet Union and to let them (Jews in America) know that there are things that they can and must do, and how to go about doing them.”

Fetterman, 26, spent about 3 1/2 months visiting universities where he attempted to set up Soviet Jewry committees and programs. He would usually spend two days at each campus, meeting with students and faculty. With his contact on campus normally being the Hillel director, several meetings a day would be set up with individual faculty members. There would also be a public lecture directed at students and residents of the town. A “workshop” would be held the second night on each campus and would serve to explain to students what they could do and how to do it.


In his meetings, Fetterman would stress the background of the problem and the development of the efforts to emigrate by Soviet Jews. He would then discuss the “rapid degeneration and repression of the past six months,” referring to arrests, harassments, beatings, and anti-Semitic campaigns in the news media.

Fetterman’s aim in talking to faculty members was “to talk to them and make them aware of the situation of their counterparts (in the USSR).” He said they are “a very influential group, probably only second to elected government officials,” because they can decline to participate in the exchange of scientific and academic information with the Soviet, which he said is of great importance to the USSR.

He added that the academics can, in effect, tell the Soviets: “If you want us to cooperate in the exchange of academic and scientific information, then you must allow academic freedom and the freedom to emigrate.”

Fetterman also attempted to inform students about the situation, with the goals of encouraging them to develop contacts with “refusniks” families (those who have been denied exit visas) and prisoners, and to organize demonstrations and pass out literature.

Most of the students “didn’t know what was going on in the USSR and were shocked off their seats,” he said, adding that “there was no awareness that there was anything they could do.” But beyond showing them how to set up committees for staging demonstrations and the dissemination of information, Fetterman especially emphasized the importance of letter writing.


According to Fetterman, letters to Soviet Jews are crucial for two main reasons. Firstly, “virtually every letter is read by the KGB (Soviet secret police), “he said. This protects the Soviet Jews from possible harm, he asserted, because the Soviet officials then know that someone in the West is concerned about a certain person.

Knowing that Americans can appeal to their Congressmen and Senators, he said, the Soviets are reluctant to jeopardize trade agreements and the exchange of technological and scientific information. “Through these letters we warn the Soviets that our concern can be translated into U.S. policy regarding the Soviet Union,” he said.

Secondly, the letters are often the only contact with the outside free world the refusniks and prisoners have and therefore bolster their spirits, he said. For the 90 percent of the refusniks who have been fired from their jobs and who face the threat of further recriminations, the letters “let them know that if they are harmed, they won’t disappear into the Gulag. Someone will ask about them and protest,” he said.


Many of the universities Fetterman visited are in small “college towns” virtually isolated from the Jewish communities of larger cities. Thus, the residents and students of these communities are “information-starved” on Jewish issues and there is “such a tremendous hunger for contacts with outside Jews,” he said. He added: “We must understand that only a few communities have international papers that carry this information.”

To remedy this, Fetterman said he feels representatives should regularly be sent into the relatively isolated Jewish communities and campuses, by the Jewish organizations whose function it is to give them this information. In addition to the national organizations, this includes local Jewish Federations and synagogues. “They are making an effort,” he said. “But the problem is not with the population, but with the effectiveness of letting them know what’s going on.”

Recommended from JTA