I am My Brother’s Keeper: Story of Struggle for Soviet Jewry

“AND…MOSES AND AHARON WENT IN, AND TOLD PHARAOH, THUS SAITH THE L-RD G-D OF ISRAEL, LET MY PEOPLE GO…” (Shmot, 5:1).

At 1:00 PM on December 29, 1969 in New York City, groups of young Jews struck simultaneously at the Soviet offices of TASS (the press agency), Intourist (the tourist agency) and Aeroflot (the airline office) and leaped aboard a Soviet airliner that had just landed at Kennedy Airport. The young Jews were all members of the Jewish Defense League and, with the attacks, a radical new chapter opened both in the saga of Soviet Jewry and in the history of the American Jewish community.

At TASS, the office was taken over by myself and three youngsters. The officials, including two Soviet journalists, were ordered to remain quiet while the walls were spray-painted with signs reading: “Am Yisroel Chai” (“The People of Israel lives”) and “Let My People Go”. At Intourist, the group, led by 25-year-old Avraham Hershkowitz, allowed those who wished to, to leave and then locked all the doors, pausing for a moment to slam the drawer of a desk on the hand of a Soviet official who sought to reach for a pair of scissors. But it was at Kennedy that the most dramatic touch was applied. There, white-faced Soviet stewardesses and stewards watched a group of young Jews rush into the cabin as a huge Ilyushin passenger plane arrived from Moscow. While one youngster painted the fusilage with Hebrew slogans, two others chained themselves to the front wheel, shouting “Am Yisroel Chai”. In one afternoon the Jews of Russia had received more publicity than from all the carefully prepared press releases of the Jewish Establishment.

While Jews and non-Jews alike stared in amazement at this extraordinary departure from the strictures of “nice Irvingism”, the JDL, including those individuals who had been arrested just the previous day, struck again. This time it was a full-scale riot on the block where the Soviet Mission to the United Nations is situated. Little did the hapless Upper East Side high-income residents know that what they were seeing was only the beginning of many, many days and nights of loud and noisy activity that would drive the Soviets up the diplomatic wall and the luxurious East 67th Street residents to the police and the courts with demands that the demonstrations be halted…

What did the JDL want? Was this violence the proper road for Jews to take? What conceivable good could emerge from rioting and physical attacks? All these questions were to be asked by an angry Jewish Establishment community over the next months as Jewish militants moved from one “outrage” to another, disrupting Soviet artistic events, harrassing and beating Soviet diplomats, bombing Soviet offices, and threatening relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. What did the JDL want?

We wanted two things. One, the freedom of every Soviet Jew who desired to leave Russia. Two, to awaken the American Jew into a recognition that he had shamefully buried the Soviet Jewish problem while he himself enjoyed the freedom of America, and to make him understand that the pain of each Jew everywhere is the pain of all Jews anywhere. We wanted to force a world and a Jewish community, that did not give a damn, to solve the problem or we would not give them peace. And finally, we wanted to teach the American Jew who he was: a Jew. First and last a Jew, and fated to struggle for or fall with all other Jews. In the long run it was the JDL’s Soviet Jewish struggle that brought back tens of thousands of American Jews to their people. In the end, more than the American Jew did for Soviet Jewry, they did for him…

…the following statement [was made] to the press: “We will continue to dramatize the plight of the Soviet Jews in any way we can until they are given their freedom and allowed to leave for Israel.”

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