The personal stories of American Jewish activists and Soviet Jews – known as refuseniks – is brought to life in Power of Protest: The Movement to Free Soviet Jews, a panel exhibition created by the National Museum of American Jewish History. The exhibition explores the significance of this dramatic, risky, and emotionally fraught social justice movement, what The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has called “the most successful human rights campaign of our time.”
After World War II, Jews who lived in the Soviet Union were denied the rights to live freely, practice Judaism, or leave the country. A worldwide human rights effort on their behalf brought together organizations, student activists, community leaders and thousands individuals – and reached the highest echelons of the American government. The exhibition serves as a reminder of the unique promise of religious freedom and our continuing responsibility to preserve and protect that freedom.
The exhibition highlights stories of everyday Americans who performed extraordinary acts of bravery to help Soviet Jews, from Leslie Schaffer of Reno, Nevada who used gum wrappers to discreetly transport information about refuseniks in 1982, to Constance and Joseph Smukler of Philadelphia who helped several well-known Soviet Jews win their freedom. Visitors will learn about individual refuseniks, from human rights activist and Israeli politician Natan Sharansky to Google co-founder Sergey Brin. A 1981 letter written by Sheryl Sandberg (now COO of Facebook) to her bat mitzvah “twin” exemplifies the thousands of American children who “twinned” their Jewish coming-of-age ceremonies with Soviet peers denied that experience.
Inspired by protest buttons popular across movements around the world, visitors can take home a button featuring the hashtag #PowerofProtest to celebrate the exhibition, commemorate the historic milestone, and highlight the contemporary significance of fighting for one’s beliefs.
Power of Protest is a small-scale, free-standing exhibition designed to travel to small galleries, libraries, synagogues, Jewish community centers, university campuses, and historic societies. To learn more about the exhibition and about bringing it to your community, click here.