A Cold War Exodus: How American Activists Mobilized to Free Soviet Jews


A Cold War Exodus

A Cold War Exodus

How American Activists Mobilized to Free Soviet Jews

New York University Press, 2024

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Reveals the mass mobilization tactics that helped free Soviet Jews and reshaped the Jewish American experience from the Johnson era through the Reagan–Bush years

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.

A Cold War Exodus delves into the gripping narrative of how these 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 one of the most significant mass emigrations in Jewish history.

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.


“A great example of the importance of studying history from the grassroots. Shaul Kelner frames the story of this transformative social movement in a fresh new way, starting out not with the boardrooms of the mighty national organizations with their professional staffs and well developed press contacts, but from the vantage point of the ordinary women and men who came from, as the rallying cry of the 1960s resounded, from the bottom up. The deep research, sharp writing, and keen insights bring the actions undertaken in kitchens and living rooms to life.” ~Hasia Diner, co-author of Immigration: An American History

“A tour de force. The prose is beautiful and every page is rich with insight. A Cold War Exodus makes landmark contributions to the sociology of movements and culture, offering important lessons for how to turn politics into a cultural movement. The cultural impact of the movement to free Soviet Jewry was profound and eclectic, reshaping religious rituals, summer camps, professional identities, tourism, and even the cola wars. Kelner’s revealing book makes clear how political impacts over decades of activity were a direct consequence of the culture and creativity of the Soviet Jewry movement, pressuring American and Soviet governments and forever reconfiguring the Jewish-American experience.” ~Terrence McDonnell, co-author of Measuring Culture

A Cold War Exodus brings back a somewhat forgotten but endlessly fascinating movement that has gone overlooked by social movement scholars. Kelner artfully blends cultural sociology with social movement theory to understand tactical innovation in the U.S.-based movement to free Soviet Jewry. The result is a complex story of culture, religion, politics, and the life course. An excellent book.” ~Rachel Einwohner, author of Hope and Honor: Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust

“Want to be an activist, make the impossible happen? Read this book! A comprehensive and compelling study of how grassroots actions can invent a movement that alters those engaged in it as well as the larger world.” ~Ronald Eyerman, author of The Cultural Sociology of Political Assassination


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