Wednesday, May 13, 2009

On Activism--#4--Jewish Activism

Up to now I've been talking about general activism. While there were Jews of all stripes involved in this secular activism, the problems being addressed were not particularly Jewish in nature. But there were some Jewish issues that did get activist attention. The two most well known about in the 60's were Soviet Jewry and Israel.

The US was deep in the Cold War and the Soviet Union was the enemy. Mention the USSR here in the states and you'd get all kinds of epithets thrown about about the bully that was trying to take over the world. For Jews there was a particular aspect of the Soviet policy that was very troubling. The Soviets were anti-religion and had banned the practice of any religion. There were 3 million Jews trapped in the USSR who were fearful for their lives. If they applied for a visa to leave the country the best they could hope for would be to lose their jobs and to be bullied; the worst was a trip to Siberia.

And then in the US a new activist organization sprung up--the SSSJ--Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. The history of the SSSJ is fascinating, and I'm giving some links below that will give you some idea of how and what the SSSJ did. The SSSJ rode the wave of anti-soviet feeling in this country and shares a lot of the credit for getting the USSR to reverse their emigration policies and allow Jews out of Russia. They marched, they protested, they staged sit-ins, they circulated petitions and they worked behind the scenes as well, marshaling political support from members of the US government. They went world-wide. And yes, it worked. (See links below for more information on the SSSJ.)

And then there was Israel. You think that it's something new today that Israel gets beaten up in the media? From its inception Israel has had to battle the world. And in the 60's at least it got help here in the US. Across the country there were rallies in support of Israel. There were protest marches and sit-ins when the UN and its membership placed blame for anything and everything on Israel. At one point Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, across from the UN, was becoming a regular Jewish meeting place. If once the saying had been "There's safety in numbers," the 60's saying morphed into "There's power in numbers."

Zionism flourished in the 60's. When I arrived in NY there was no Jewish community of any size that did not have active groups, both national and local, whose activities were Zionist in nature. Bnai Akiva organized the young, as did Mizrachi Hatzair. My first Simchas Torah in NY was spent in Boro Park. And where did we go for hakofos on Simchas Torah? To the large Bnai Akiva shul that was then on 47th off 14th Avenue. (I believe one of the Bais Yaakov-type schools is now in that building.) It was "the place to be seen" for Simchas Torah. Far Rockaway had Bnei Akiva, Flatbush had Bnei Akiva, SI had Bnei Akiva. Not so today. Mizrachi Women was "the" frum women's group of the time. Their chapters were everywhere, and actively everywhere. Yes, they were all over Brooklyn. I know this for a fact, because I was the co-President of the Brooklyn Council of Mizrachi Women, this in the 70's. It was on behalf of zionism that parents were encouraged to send their children to Israel back then. "Mach Hach," the Bnei Akiva program, found hundreds, found thousands of youth anxious to go to Israel and work on behalf of Israel. Yes, work. The religious kibbutzim found themselves as a home away from home for many a frum, Zionist student. These were not the only groups active then. The National Council of Young Israel had a youth division called Young Israel Collegiates. This group provided social activities in the communities where they were as well as providing speakers and programs encouraging Zionism and dedication to Israel.

It should be noted that a lot of this Zionism was rooted in what we call the MO today--back then we were just plain frum. And no, it was not limited only to the MO. There were people from the more right wing who also joined Mizrachi, who also came out for the rallies, who also encouraged their children in Zionism.

Today the climate has changed. Today the language has changed. There are plenty who worry about Israel and how it is treated. Yes, there are some who still actively protest when Israel is bashed by the countries of the world, but far more of that protest is private rather than public. Yes, we still have an Israeli Day Parade, but it has become more of a social occasion than a public statement of support. And far fewer people are involved. Going to Israel for our young people has taken on a different reason. Many a parent who has sent their child to Israel to learn but not to learn about Israel. And there are plenty of people who condemn Israel and its actions, and they are the ones who are making public statements. When the Neturyah Karta went to Iran they got the headlines for their public action. Zionism is no longer a unifier across Klal, no longer first and foremost in the hearts, minds and tongues of the frum communities. These communities have become insular, far more concerned with their own problems than with the problems Israel faces. Where are the big rallies, the protests, the public outcries? Sorry Scarlett, but they've gone with the wind.

Note: During this time period there developed even a few Jewish militant activist groups. Perhaps the best know was the JDL, Meir Kahane's group. Also interesting to note. Music and activism were tied together during the 60's--"We Shall Overcome" comes to mind. Jewish activists also had their "anthems." Shlomo Carlebach wrote "Am Yisroel Chai" in support of the Jewish activists for Israel.

Links to SSSJ sites: Article about the SSSJ and it's first meeting at Columbia plus additional history.
JACOB BIRNBAUMand the Struggle for Soviet Jewry
Part 1 and Part 2
by Yossi Klein Halevi

"Azur", Winter 2004

The story of the founding of SSSJ and it's history. Also contains references to Meir Kahane and the JDL--Jewish Defense League--and "the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry was created as a local umbrella organization for establishment groups. Under the leadership of Malcolm Hoenlein, a longtime SSSJ supporter and today the executive vice president of the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the Greater New York Conference essentially implemented SSSJ�s vision of a grassroots campaign. "

Details the collection of material from and about the SSSJ as well as an article on the same page with a history of the SSSJ

Brief history of the SSSJ

Jacob Birnbaum receives an honorary degree from YU

Some pictures from SSSJ activities

Pictures from many National Conference on Soviet Jewry activities

Article about SSSJ, and NCSJ--National Conference on Soviet Jewry-- and GNCSJ--Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry.


Anonymously said...

Too many people who just assume that Israel will remain strong despite world opinion. The Israeli Day Parade put us in a real bind a few years ago. We've always taken our kids to the parade. But my sons had yeshiva on Sunday. If I took them to the parade what were they going to tell their rebbi when he asked why they weren't in school. We didn't want them to lie, not a good thing to be teaching them, but the truth would get them in trouble with the yeshiva. We sort of split the difference and told them that if anyone asked they had a family affair--at least that was truthful since we are a family and we all went and met my sister's family there too.

Anonymous said...

Very good post and bitterly true!
I am pleased to say that in the UK, Bnei Akiva and other religious zionist youth movements ARE still strong, and perhaps outside the chareidi areas of New York, that is also the case. In the end, if one simply wants to learn 'in', but not 'about' Israel, then why not just read a few books - it would certainly save a few air tickets!
Also: it is worth noting that the US government had at best a lukewarm attitude towards Israel until at least the 1956 Sinai War, and perhaps later still, as a result of the country's initially strong socialist structure.
Let's only hope that US continues to be a true friend, but to achieve this outcome, perhaps a whole new activism will be needed from Klal...

Allen said...

Given President Obama's attitude toward Israel and the Arabs it's time to dust off that activism and get some large public outrage and protest against those policies. He is going to need to see and hear that Jewish Americans aren't in favor of what he is doing. Yes, he also needs to receive thousands and thousands of emails that tell him we don't like the attitude towards Israel. And he needs to get them every day.

With the world trying to hack Israel into smaller and smaller pieces NOW is the time to say "NO!" not when it might be too late c"v.

Lion of Zion said...


i too am not happy with obama, but i think it's false to state "that Jewish Americans aren't in favor of what he is doing." frum jews in the new york area (yeah, yeah, and some OOT places as well) might not be happy, but they are in no way representative of american jewry

Bklynite said...

"My first Simchas Torah in NY was spent in Boro Park. And where did we go for hakofos on Simchas Torah? To the large Bnai Akiva shul that was then on 47th off 14th Avenue. (I believe one of the Bais Yaakov-type schools is now in that building.)"

You seem to be referring to Machzikei Talmud Torah of BP, now the Sarah Schenirer school, though there are remnants of the past visible on and in the building. Presumably BA held services there, as per your account, but it doesn't seem that it was their building.

Lion of Zion said...

some factors for the decline of american orthodox zionism:

-few have a direct connection to the holocaust
-israel itself is stronger than ever (not to minimize the very real threats it faces)
-decline of anti-semitism in america (in the public sphere)
-shift to the right
-shifting of priorities even within the MO camp itself as religion itself is taken more seriously (e.g., learning is much more important and is a competing activity)
the takeover of MO chinuch (not in all schools) by RW rebbes
-climbing the socio-economic ladder and adopting the suburban life
-decline of grass roots activism in general
-no more בצים (i.e., who wants to get arrested for a cause)

and of course let's not forget about the culpability of the parents. what did these good activist, zionist jews expect would happen when they sent their kids to RW schools, camps, etc. where attitudes were at best ambivalent toward zionism, if not anti-zionism.

Lion of Zion said...

also note that the decline of zionist activism pervades the entire jewish community, not just the orthodox (some of factors i listed above apply to all jews). my father was active in betar, which is gone now. and where is hashomer hatzair, etc and all the other non-orthodox groups?

Allen said...

Lion, at this point the frum Jews represent the visible face of American Jewry in the US. We obviously look Jewish when we are seen. And the general public extrapolates from seeing a Jew in a kipoh to statements about "all Jews." You see any large scale movements involving the non-frum Jews or the marginal Jews? The reform and conservative movements are having enough trouble seeing their numbers go down every year. They aren't leading the national charge on Jewish issues.

Don't discount what seeing thousands of frum Jews (and anyone else who wants to join in)on television as they protest policies could result in. So a lot of them are in NY? Actually a plus. A mass rally in NY has more affect then one in Oshkosh Missouri.

I wear a kipoh at work. There are plenty of other Jews who aren't frum working in my firm. But when someone wants to know how Jews think about something they ask me, because I'm the obvious Jew.

Bklynite said...

LOZ - you left out the major factor of many of the most dedicated USA RZ's going on aliyah.

ProfK said...

A good point Bklynite. Many of the RZs are now in Israel and took their American born kids with them. Presumably those kids, were they still in the US, would have been actively and visibly involved in activism for Israel.

You're right about Machzike--I asked my Boro Park born hubby. But Bnei Akiva used the space for davening and everyone in Boro Park knew they were there and how to find them. They weren't a basement minyan hidden somewhere.

Lion of Zion said...


protests are effective in 2 situations. when they are disruptive of civil society or when they represent a broader silent concensus. we're not going to be disruptive (see the בצים comment above) and obama is smart enough to know that orthodox jews don't represent the mainstream jewish concensus when it comes to israel.

"So a lot of them are in NY?"

my point there was that we forget that there are jews who live outside of the tri-state orthodox ghetto and who have different opinions re. israel.


that's a good point, but i don't know if i would make too much of it. the numbers of olim from the US are still a drop in the bucket (despite what it might seem like considering the great PR of nefesh be-nefesh)

Anonymous said...

LOZ - also note that the decline of zionist activism pervades the entire jewish community, not just the orthodox (some of factors i listed above apply to all jews). my father was active in betar, which is gone now. and where is hashomer hatzair, etc and all the other non-orthodox groups?Unfortunately, when people become rich, fat, and spoiled, the only cause worth fighting for is oneself. That's pretty much what happened to US Jews.