This poster from 1971 advocated freeing Jews from the USSR and Syria. The slogan “Let My People Go,” written in both Hebrew and English, is a quotation from the book of Exodus:
The Lord said to Moses: “Come to Pharaoh and say to him: So said the Lord, God of the Hebrews, let My people go, that they may serve Me.” (Exodus 9:1)
The figure on the right has a Star of David pinned to his upper body, most likely to remind people of the Holocaust when Jews were forced to wear a yellow Star of David. Likewise, the outlines of the rather gaunt figures seemed designed to remind people of Holocaust memorials.
Above and below the slogan appear the flags of two countries: the USSR and Syria. During this time, different groups, including Jews, were denied permission to emigrate from the USSR and from Syria. In the USSR, some Jews who applied for permission to emigrate were wrongfully accused of crimes. They were usually fired from their jobs and forced to accept menial labour, if they could find employment at all. In Syria, the Jews were prohibited from leaving the country, and those caught trying to leave the country illegally were imprisoned or even executed.
Following these bans on aliya, Jewish people around the world joined in efforts to help the Soviet and Syrian Jews. Some individuals visited the USSR and helped the “refuseniks,” the Soviet Jews who were refused permission to immigrate. Others participated in demonstrations and sent letters of petition to influential people on behalf of the Soviet and Syrian Jews.
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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 Zalmensov, 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.
Jewish Community in Syria – Jews have been living in Syria since the time of the Second Temple. This community, centred in Damascus and Aleppo, was one of the most important Jewish communities in the Middle East. As in other Muslim countries, the Jews were given a lower status than Muslims, forced to pay special taxes, and were subject to anti-Jewish laws. However, the Jews worked in small industry and trade, and some also became important doctors and government officials. The community grew with the arrival of Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492. During the Ottoman period, the Syrian Jewish community grew, prospered, and also became a centre for Jewish learning. European influence spread to Syria in the nineteenth century, and Jewish traders also arrived in the country. Modern Jewish schools and institutions were established, and the community prospered. However, Western influence also brought Christian stereotypes and prejudices to the country, and in 1840 Jews were accused of the ritual killing of a Christian priest and his servant in what became known as the Damascus Affair. The affair was brought resolved due to international intervention and the help of influential Jews such as the Rothschild family and Sir Moses Montefiore. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, many Syrian Jews emigrated to England, the United States, Argentina, and other countries. The relationship between the Muslims and the Jewish community had always been tense, but the twentieth century and the rise of the Zionist movement saw a surge in anti-Jewish events. The French, who ruled Syria after the Ottomans, protected the Jewish community, but the end of the French Mandate in 1946 and the establishment of Israel in 1948 brought more persecution and riots on the Jewish community. Many Jews fled Syria, but for those remaining the situation was very harsh: their civil rights were denied, private and community assets were confiscated, and Jews were not allowed to leave the country. The capture of the Israeli spy Eli Cohen in 1965 exacerbated the situation. In the ensuing decades Jews were finally allowed to leave, and today it is reported that fewer than 20 Jews live in Syria.