Latest update: July 15th, 2013
The recent reunion, in Washington, D.C., of activists from the Soviet Jewry protest movement was an opportunity to see old friends and reminisce about a bygone era. But for Philadelphia attorney Joe Smukler, it was also a time to reflect on the lessons to be learned from their unique, history-changing experiences.
Joe and his wife, Connie, were not cut from quite the same cloth as most of the Washington reunion attendees, who had been leaders of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ), the main Jewish establishment organization fighting for Soviet Jews. During the early days of the Soviet Jewry movement in Philadelphia, the Smuklers were leaders of a non-establishment group called the Committee of One Thousand.
“Admittedly, it was an optimistic name,” Smukler said in a recent interview. “The idea was that it would consist of one thousand local activists for Soviet Jewry. In reality, it was never more than a few dozen. But the energy and commitment of our members really sometimes made it feel like we had a thousand people.”
It was an era when idealists and activists were having a real impact on the world. “We saw the successes of the civil rights movement, and the anti-Vietnam war protests,” he said, “and we started to realize that we could really do it – that if we fought hard enough, we could open the gates of the Soviet Union.”
The Smuklers declined to become the Philadelphia branch of the NCSJ because the group did not seem to be sufficiently activist-minded. But they also declined to become affiliates of the activist, non-establishment camp led by the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry and the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry.
“The divisions and disagreements between the established groups and the activists were a source of great frustration for us,” Joe recalled. “I couldn’t stand the idea that the same kind of internal fighting that hampered American Jews during the Holocaust was happening all over again. So in Philadelphia, we basically forced a merger of the establishment elements, the activists, and our committee. We called it the Philadelphia Council for Soviet Jewry, and I am proud to say that it was a model for unified action. It was more activist than the traditional, established groups – but at the same time, it was respectable enough to be taken seriously in the halls of power.”
Ensuring that the mistakes of the Holocaust years were not repeated was a major factor motivating Joe Smukler’s involvement in the fight for Soviet Jewry.
“Arthur Morse’s book While Six Million Died was a very significant influence,” he said. “It appeared just when the Soviet Jewry movement was starting to take shape. Morse articulated what many of us knew in our hearts, but which nobody had ever documented before – that the Roosevelt administration could have saved many Jews from the Holocaust, but it chose not to. And that American Jewish leaders could have influenced President Roosevelt to intervene for the refugees – but they were afraid to speak out.
“Later, other scholars published additional research revealing even more about America and the Holocaust, such as David Wyman’s The Abandonment of the Jews. It was all kind of a shock to us. I grew up in Strawberry Mansion, where many Jews looked at FDR not only as a hero, but almost as a deity. My opinion changed when I learned that he did nothing when he could have done something, for the Jews under Hitler. Of course this does not at all diminish our respect for his leadership in World War II and everything he did for America. But how can we ever forget the St. Louis, or the farce of the Bermuda conference? How can we ever forgive him for not acting when he had the opportunity to save Jewish lives?
“The new books about Roosevelt and the Holocaust were extremely important in shaping our perspective. We were determined to prevent another abandonment. We resolved to never again respond to Jewish suffering with silence. The Holocaust became our frame of reference.”
At rallies, in speeches, and in the literature of the movement, there were frequent allusions to the slow response of American Jews to Hitler and the need for a more effective and outspoken response to the persecution of Jews in the USSR.
Not that everyone saw it that way, Smukler acknowledged. “There were some mainstream Jewish leaders, such as Max Fisher and Jacob Stein, who advocated a kind of ‘sha-shtil’ approach. They argued that noisy protests would make things worse for Soviet Jews. They urged us to put our faith in the assurances offered by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that his ‘quiet diplomacy’ would convince the Kremlin to permit Jewish emigration.”
Smukler remembered running into similar attitudes and obstacles from officials of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. “They had their own agenda – which was the agenda of whichever political party was in power at the moment – and they wanted to control our movement so they could shape it to suit their agenda.
“To me, this was a like a repeat of the 1940’s. There was no way we could follow such an approach. It had already been proven wrong – tragically wrong. We were not going to repeat the mistakes of the 1940’s.”
Smukler pointed out that during his visits to the USSR, Soviet Jews urged him to be as outspoken as possible. “They told us, for example, that there was a direct correlation between the number of letters written to each Soviet Jewish activist and the way the KGB treated that activist. The more letters from abroad, the more the Soviet authorities were reluctant to persecute him, knowing there were people abroad who were concerned.”
Even before he formally took on the mantle of Soviet Jewry leadership in Philadelphia, Smukler was making his presence felt on the issue. When he was president of the Philadelphia-area college campus Hillels in the late 1960’s, there was once a controversy over a group of Penn students who had chained themselves to the Soviet Embassy in Washington protest the mistreatment of Soviet Jewry.
“Some Jewish establishment types wanted me to punish these students – even expel them from Hillel,” Smukler recalled. “I would not allow that. In fact, I patted them on the back. They were courageous and idealistic, and deserved the Jewish community’s praise.”
He remembered another incident, from the early 1970’s, when a Soviet hockey team visited Philadelphia for a game. “We started to organize a protest. Local Jewish leaders tried to pressure us to refrain from protesting. We did it anyway. We prepared signs in Russian and English, with polite but firm slogans about Soviet Jewry. Then we bought tickets in seats in various sections of the old Spectrum arena, and held up the posters in such a way that no matter where the television cameras focused, the signs were visible. And there were Russian TV crews there, beaming it all back to the USSR.”
The Soviet players, seeing the signs, refused to skate onto the ice to start the game. Arena officials pleaded with Smukler to take down the signs. He agreed to do so – but instructed the sign-bearers to take them down very slowly, one at a time, so that the televised images going back to the Soviet Union would continue to show the signs for a while.
One of Smukler’s proudest moments came in 1977, when an official Soviet newspaper, Izvestia, cited him by name as someone suspected of conspiring with then-Prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky.
“If the Soviet authorities hated me so much,” he said with a smile, “I knew I must be doing something right.”
About the Author: Benyamin Korn, former executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent and the Miami Jewish Tribune, is chairman of the Philadelphia Religious Zionists.
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