Too “Retro”—Or A Model Of Jewish Activism?

11.19.12 7:15 PM ET

Sigal Samuel’s suggestion that Natan Sharansky and Eli Wiesel are “too retro” because they are “from the age of concentration camps and gulags,” and that their “battles…don’t resonate” with a younger generation strikes me as a profoundly sad misunderstanding of the lessons to be learned from Jewish history.

In commenting on a recent session at the GA in which Wiesel and Sharansky discussed the Soviet Jewry movement on the 25th anniversary of the largest gathering of North American Jews, Samuel argues that having grown up in an age of perceived Israeli power, informed by the strength of “Uzi’s and M16s,” a Jewish underdog narrative seems alien. Instead, she contends that a renewed commitment to social justice provides a more viable future for a young generation of American Jews.

What Samuel is missing, however, is the extent to which the Soviet Jewry Movement embodied such an effort toward tikkun olam (healing the world). After all, the Soviet Jewry Movement was first and foremost a human rights movement focused on supporting the freedom of migration, freedom of conscience, and freedom of expression of millions of Soviet Jews. Soviet Jewish Activists (Refuseniks) were allied with the broader Soviet human rights movement led by Nobel Prize Laureate Andrei Sakharov (who was not Jewish). The U.S.-based Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry was an outgrowth of the Civil Rights movement and leaders of the Soviet Jewry movement, like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, also played a pivotal role in fighting for voting rights and overthrowing the repressive Jim Crow South. In fact, in 1966, Martin Luther King himself supported the cause of Soviet Jewry and addressed the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry saying “No person of good will can stand by as a silent auditor while there is a possibility of the complete spiritual and cultural destruction of a once flourishing Jewish community.”

Why isn’t a historic human rights movement led by American Jews (in partnership with many non-Jews) that was based on basic freedoms and that succeeded in liberating millions and toppling an oppressive regime a source of pride for young American Jews today? Samuel’s answer seems to be that it does not resonate because it is part of the “old battles” where Jews sought to get “more power.”

But is that true? American activists on behalf of Soviet Jewry did not organize rallies and protest for decades to get more power. Heralding universal principles of human rights, Soviet Jewry activists created a model of successful rights-based activism that should resonate with today’s young, American-Jewish activists who care about genocide in Sudan, poverty in the United States, or even efforts to perfect Israel’s democracy. But maybe Jewish millenials have become so blinded by contemporary debates over the state of Israeli democracy and the Arab-Israeli conflict (as important as those issues are) that they are unable to see any Jewish activism in the past as relevant. I certainly hope not.  Then again, I suspect that at the age of 43, I too am “retro.”

But I wonder whether Samuel thinks that the “battles” of other former supporters of the Soviet Jewry movement lack resonance: Are Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr. too “retro” as well?