This is a photograph taken of a demonstration in 1962, where more than 25,000 people showed their support for the plight of their fellow Jews in the USSR. The demonstration was intended to put pressure on the Soviet leaders to give the Jews living in the USSR freedom of belief and religious practice and to allow them to leave the USSR. The photo shows a large number of people, many holding banners with messages printed on them. The word “חופש” (freedom) appears on many of the banners. Another banner features a large Magen David (Star of David). In addition to the Hebrew signs are signs written in Russian, French, and English. One English sign reads “Let my people go,” a popular slogan used in rallies all over the world in support of Soviet Jewry. This phrase has its roots in the Bible, in the book of Exodus when Moses asks Pharaoh to release the Jewish people from bondage in Egypt. The crowd in the photograph seems varied, including also a large number of young teenagers.
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Refuseniks – During the communist rule of the Soviet Union, it was very difficult for Jews to obtain visas to leave the country, and only a small quota of Jews was allowed to leave each year. The Jews who were refused an exit permit were unofficially named “refuseniks” and were considered either traitors or a security liability. Jews who applied for an exit visa were subjected to KGB (secret police) surveillance, were often denied employment, and, as a result, would either face imprisonment or find a menial job. Famous refuseniks included Natan Sharansky, Ida Nudel, Yosef Mendelevitch, Israel and Sylva Zalmenson, and Yuli Edelstein, who later became the speaker of the Knesset (Israeli parliament). In the 1970s the plight of the Soviet refuseniks became known, and Jews from around the world placed international pressure on the USSR to allow Jews to leave the country. In 1990s, with political changes in the USSR Jews were allowed to leave freely.
Soviet Jewry Movement – The Soviet Jewry movement refers to the activities of Jews in the United States, Europe, and Israel to pressure the Soviet Union to allow Jews to immigrate to Israel. This movement began as a grassroots movement in the United States, led by students and housewives, but within a short time many more joined the movement and they even succeeded in enlisting large Western governments to protest the plight of Soviet Jews, as a human rights issue, whenever they met with Soviet officials. The movement’s slogan, taken from the book of Exodus, was “Let My People Go,” and it was used in demonstrations and rallies that took place around the world, culminating in the 1987 March on Washington when a quarter of a million people rallied in Washington, DC before the Reagan-Gorbachev summit. Throughout this period and continuing after the collapse of the Soviet Union, over one million Russian Jews left the Soviet Union, with most of them immigrating to Israel. Some well-known Russian emigres are Natan Sharansky, Ida Nudel, Yuli Edelstein, and Sergey Brin, Google co-founder.
Jews in the Soviet Union – The communist ideology of the Soviet Union demanded all Soviet minorities and nationalities to merge into one Soviet entity. While the Jews were not allowed a Jewish identity or to practice their Jewish tradition, they were nonetheless forced to have the word “Jewish” printed on their identity cards during Stalin’s rule. The combination of wiping out national and religious identity and yet singling out Jews created a difficult situation for Soviet Jews. With the creation of the State of Israel, their situation became even more complex. Despite voting in favour of the establishment of the State of Israel, the Soviet Union rejected Zionism in principle and prohibited any activity of a national or Jewish nature. In the 1960s, and especially after Israel’s success in the 1967 Six-Day War, Soviet Jews felt tremendous pride in Israel and empowered to request exit visas to leave the Soviet Union for Israel. However, most applicants for exit visas were “refused,” which led to them being known as “Refuseniks.” Some Refuseniks were fired from their jobs and even arrested and charged with activity against the government and the Soviet people. The plight of Soviet Jewry aroused international Jewish activity and pressure from the United States and Europe on the Soviet Union to open their gates. As a result of this activity, the Soviet Union changed its policy and enabled hundreds of thousands of Jews to leave for Israel.