On the morning of May 1, 1964 — almost exactly 50 years ago — an unusual sight greeted anyone walking along 67th Street on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
A thousand young men and women in two neat rows, dressed like they were heading off to synagogue, the boys in skinny black ties, the girls in pumps, marched silently in front of the Soviet mission to the United Nations. This was the very first public protest on behalf of Soviet Jewry.
But perhaps stranger even than the sight of the students — who looked identical in seriousness and gesture to their cohorts then on the front lines of the civil rights movement — was the figure at the head of the marchers: a tall, broad shouldered Englishman named Yaakov Birnbaum, then in his late 30s but with his thick black Van Dyke beard and panama hat looking even older.
Birnbaum died on April 9 at the age of 87. That moment fifty years ago, at the birth of his new organization, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, would set the course of his activist life in motion. And though the memory of his role as the father of the Soviet Jewry movement began to fade even as Soviet Jews emigrated in massive numbers in the early 1990s, those who know the movement’s roots have always acknowledged that he was the first person to imagine that emigration was even possible — and decided to fight for it.
Natan Sharansky, the most high-profile political prisoner in Birnbaum’s cause and now the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, reached for a biblical analogy to describe Birnbaum’s significance. He was, wrote Sharansky in an email, like Nachshon in the Exodus story, the man who bravely jumps into the Red Sea before it has even parted, a sign of his faith.
Like the scared children of Israel, “Jews on both sides of the Iron Curtain stood hesitant and were afraid to act. Soviet Jews feared immediate cruel oppression from the authorities, while the American Jewish establishment’s leaders feared damaging the Soviet Jews with their public actions.” But Birnbaum, noted Sharansky, had the faith of Nachshon, ready to leap first. He knew that the sea would part because he had righteousness on his side.
It is always easier to look back from a vantage point of success and imagine that the course of history was foreordained, but in the early 1960s neither the emigration of nearly two million Jews from the Soviet Union nor the fact that American Jews would exercise the political muscle to turn this cause into a major sticking point in the Cold War seemed inevitable in any way.