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A Cold War Exodus

Mar 28, 2024

How American Activists Mobilized to Free Soviet Jews

by Shaul Kelner

A new book, documenting the grassroots Soviet Jewry movement in the U.S., is due for publication April 2024. Shaul Kelner’s A Cold War Exodus delves into the gripping narrative of how men and women, through ingenuity and determination, devised mass mobilization tactics during a three-decade-long campaign to liberate Soviet Jews—an endeavor that would ultimately lead to both one of the most significant mass emigrations in Jewish history and a reshaping of the Jewish American experience.
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What do these things have in common? Ingrid Bergman, Passover matzoh, Banana Republic®, the fitness craze, the Philadelphia Flyers, B-grade spy movies, and ten thousand Bar and Bat Mitzvah sermons? Nothing, except that social movement activists enlisted them all into the most effective human rights campaign of the Cold War.

The plight of Jews in the USSR was marked by systemic antisemitism, a problem largely ignored by Western policymakers trying to improve relations with the Soviets. In the face of governmental apathy, activists in the United States hatched a bold plan: unite Jewish Americans to demand that Washington exert pressure on Moscow for change.

Drawing from a wealth of archival sources including the travelogues of thousands of American tourists who smuggled aid to Russian Jews, Shaul Kelner offers a compelling tale of activism and its profound impact, revealing how a seemingly disparate array of elements could be woven together to forge a movement and achieve the seemingly impossible. It is a testament to the power of unity, creativity, and the unwavering dedication of those who believe in the cause of human rights.

Shaul Kelner is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and Sociology at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of the award-winning Tours That Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage, and Israeli Birthright Tourism and of A Cold War Exodus: How American Activists Mobilized to Free Soviet Jews.