Human Rights Activists for Oppressed Jews in Foreign Lands
Throughout history, many rulers and nations have oppressed their Jewish populations or sought to eliminate them entirely through expulsion—such as in England in 1290 and Spain in 1492—or by mass killings—such as the First Crusade, the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian pogroms, and the Shoah.
More rare have been cases where Jews were denied the right to leave a country or were unable to leave because of a humanitarian disaster.
In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, many Jewish Canadians helped create a grassroots campaign to help Jews escape from three countries—the Soviet Union, Syria, and Ethiopia. The activists were inspired by the Jewish concept to heal the world (Tikkun olam) and by a desire to never again allow governments to persecute Jews.
In the Soviet Union, many Jews applied for exit visas to leave the country, especially after 1967. Many were refused permission to emigrate and came to be called “refuseniks” because of this refusal from Soviet authorities. Jews in Canada and elsewhere began protests at Soviet consulates. Many travelled to the Soviet Union to meet the refusniks or offer legal counsel.
This activism took place in the shadow of the Shoah, which was not a distant memory. Protests in front of Soviet consulates were a statement of what should have happened 30 years earlier in front of German embassies and consulates.
By putting the international spotlight on the treatment of the refusniks, Jewish activists helped pressure Soviet leaders to allow Soviet Jews to leave. In 1990, Gorbachev-era reforms took hold and more than 213,000 Jews emigrated—refused no more. This was the start of the largest Jewish exodus in history—more than 1 million Soviet Jews.
Jewish activists also helped draw attention to the plight of the Jewish community in Syria, who were prevented from leaving the country. Those Jews who were permitted to travel for business purposes could not travel with family members because the Syrian government feared that they would flee. Activists lobbied western governments to pressure Syria to grant exit visas. Others helped bribe Syrian officials to smuggle families out. By 1995, all Syrian Jews who wanted to leave had left with only 250 Jews remaining in Damascus.
For centuries, the world Jewish community was not aware of the existence of Jews in Ethiopia, who had been so long cut off from Jews elsewhere. Threats from the military government and famine compelled Jewish activists to work of their behalf. Eventually, the State of Israel airlifted 14,324 Ethiopian Jews to safety. Some also settled in Canada.
The Human rights activists for oppressed Jews in foreign lands were ordinary people who accomplished extraordinary things through collective action and an unwavering belief in freedom.