Soviet Jewry activists leveraged hometown relationships with elected officials and their proximity to the U.S. Capitol.
Members of Congress supported the cause by holding hearings, giving speeches, occasionally attending the vigil, and visiting Jews in the Soviet Union. Congressional aides strategized on passage of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which linked trade relations to emigration.
Led by the Washington Committee for Soviet Jewry and the Jewish Community Council, local activists served as important resources. They helped gather information for legislators on conditions in the Soviet Union and collaborated on Capitol Hill receptions for prominent refuseniks.
Other Washingtonians advocated for Soviet Jews in diplomatic negotiations on the international stage.
The U.S. Soviet Jewry movement played a key role in placing the Soviet Jewish emigration issue on the Congressional agenda in the 1970s and the Reagan Administration’s agenda in the 1980s. Ambassador Richard Schifter, Former Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, speaking at the Jewish Historical Society Annual Meeting, 2012
Marking Sharansky’s birthday, 1978
Imprisoned refusenik Natan Sharansky’s 30th birthday is recognized at the vigil. The pumpernickel loaf “cake” was edged with potatoes. Attendees included, from left to right, Deborah Bash (Arlington Fairfax Congregation), Rabbi Stephen Listfield (Adas Israel), Irene Manekofsky (WCSJ), Avital Sharansky, Representative Newton Steers (MD), Representative Millicent Fenwick (NJ), and activist Shonny Kugler (lighting candles).
First Lady receives book of appeals, 1979
The Congressional Wives for Soviet Jewry present First Lady Rosalynn Carter with appeals from refuseniks. Formed in 1978, the Congressional Wives corresponded with refuseniks, gave talks in their home districts, and hosted political briefings at an International Conference of Parliamentary Spouses for Soviet Jewry. L to R: Helen Jackson (WA), Paula Blanchard (MI), the First Lady, Jeanette Williams (NJ), and Joanne Kemp (NY).
Prisoner of Conscience Rally, 1979
Representative Michael Barnes (MD) addresses a crowd of children and adults carrying banners with the names of Prisoners of Conscience.
Congressman awaits student lobbyists, 1979
Congressman Father Robert Drinan (MA), a Jesuit priest and chair of the International Committee to Release Anatoly Sharansky, prepares to meet 200 students who traveled to Washington to brief their Representatives on the Soviet Jewry issue. Drinan attended the World Conference on Soviet Jewry in Jerusalem on a Jewish Community Council delegation in 1983.
Prisoner of Conscience honored, 1981
When Prisoner of Conscience Ida Nudel turned 50 while in exile in Siberia, Representatives Michael Barnes (MD), Millicent Fenwick (NJ), Benjamin Gilman (NY), Norman Lent (NY), Patricia Schroeder (CO), and Henry Waxman (CA) honored her with a birthday tribute in the Rayburn House Office Building.
Tribute to Ambassador Max Kampelman, 1981
Washington attorney and leading diplomat Max Kampelman kept Soviet Jewry in the forefront of human rights discussions. As Ambassador of the U.S. Delegation to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe from 1980-1983, he sometimes read names of refuseniks aloud during press briefings. Years later, a former refusenik told him: “You know, in the jails, one night we heard you mention my name. I want to thank you.”
Congressional Representatives and emigres, 1979
Members of Congress stand on the U.S. Capitol steps with Soviet émigrés who are holding photos of family members still unable to emigrate. Front, left to right: Pinkhus Khnokh, Sender Levinson, Amnon Zavurov, Julia Dymshitz, Henrietta Orlovsky, Ilana Friedman, and Jonathan Levin (NCSJ). Back, left to right: Representative Martin Frost (TX), interpreter Ilya Levkov, unknown, and Representatives Howard Wolpe (MI), Edward Stack (FL), James Shannon (MA), and Michael Barnes (MD).
Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Richard Schifter at the United Nations, 1980
Ambassador Richard Schifter served as Deputy U.S. Representative to the U.N. Security Council in the 1980s. Appointed as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights from 1985-1992, he conducted human rights negotiations with the Soviet Union while arms reduction talks were underway, and played a pivotal role in helping bring about the eventual release of Soviet Jews.
Local Congressman meets with former refuseniks, 1985-1992
Congressman Steny Hoyer (MD) meets with former Leningrad refuseniks, Evgeny and Irina Lein, during their first visit to the United States. Hoyer served as the co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission on Human Rights.
Briefing Representative Morella, late 1980s
Behind Representative Connie Morella (MD) are Matlee Yadin, Samuel Sislen (both of the Jewish Community Council), and Barbara Gaffin (NCSJ’s Congressional Liaison). Sislen explained: “Connie Morella traveled to the USSR to visit refuseniks. I gave her materials to bring with her. After all, the KGB was not likely to confiscate materials from a Member of Congress.”
Senator Jackson addresses a Capitol Hill rally, 1973
Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson addressed the 10,000-person crowd at a rally on the Capitol steps held during Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s visit. In his speech, Jackson asked, “Is it too much to demand an end to the trials, the denials, the arrest and imprisonment, the brutal mistreatment of innocent people?”
President Reagan at Jewish Community Center Hanukkah celebration, 1983
During a visit to the JCCGW, President Ronald Reagan remarked, “To every religious dissident trapped in this cold and cruel land, let us pray that the warm lights of Hanukkah will spread out the spirit of freedom and comfort and sustain every person who is suffering tonight.” Left to right: Joel Breslau (United Jewish Appeal Federation President), Soviet emigre Tamara Feldblyum, JCCGW senior citizen Ida Luzanski, high school student Charles Wolstein, President Reagan, and JCCGW President Philip Margolius.
The Jackson-Vanik Amendment
Named for its key sponsors, Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (WA) and Congressman Charles Vanik (OH), the Jackson-Vanik Amendment denied favorable U.S. trade relations to non-market (communist) countries that blocked their citizens’ right to freedom of emigration. Aimed at the Soviet Union’s restrictions on Jews desiring to emigrate to Israel or the West, the amendment was added to a trade bill.
Although Secretary of State Henry Kissinger strongly objected to linking trade to a human rights issue, the U.S. Jewish community fought successfully for Congressional passage of the amendment. The Jackson-Vanik provision became law when President Gerald Ford signed The Trade Reform Act of 1974 on January 3, 1975.
As a result of the law, the number of exit visas issued to Soviet Jews declined in the following years. Eventually, the Soviet government’s desire for expanded trade with the U.S. led to a loosening of its emigration policies.
There was an informal group of congressional aides, predominantly Jewish, who were intimately involved in the strategy surrounding the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. . . . key players were Richard Perle, Legislative Assistant to Senator Jackson; Mark Talisman, Administrative Assistant to Congressman Charles Vanik; Morris Amitay, Legislative Assistant to Senator Abraham Ribicoff; and Pete Lakeland, Chief Foreign Policy Aide to Senator Jacob Javits. June Rogul, Soviet Jewry Memoir, 2010, Jewish Historical Society Archives