During the 1970s, there were always internal debates about how to help Soviet Jewry through demonstrations and protests. Indeed, the student organisers of the very first march to the Soviet Embassy in London in May 1966 did not inform the Board of Deputies, in case they tried to veto it, since they feared it would instigate antisemitism. While there were notable exceptions such as a demonstration by the 35s (the Womens’ Campaign for Soviet Jewry) during a performance of the Georgian State Dance Company at the Coliseum Theatre in June 1973, the general approach was to utilise clever and often sophisticated public relations techniques – to demonstrate outside cultural events rather than disrupt them. All this was so successful that successive governments actually consulted the 35s.
Beyond the 35s, there was often a polarisation between those who spoke much and did little – and those who believed that all publicity was good publicity. The latter preferred to react to the reactionaries rather than to the issue. The more militant the approach, the more they felt they were helping the cause.
Militancy only works if it achieves a public resonance. In the UK, there was already a sympathy for the cause of Soviet Jewry and for figures such as Andrei Sakharov. The strategy of the 35s cultivated and carried public opinion. The same cannot be said about those who attempted to disrupt the concert of the Israeli Philharmonic. Probably a majority of British citizens wish to see a just two-state solution and an end to violence. A protest against musicians did not encapsulate that vision.
Wrapping oneself with the flag of righteousness alienates multitudes. After all it is the very same Jewish community that campaigned for Soviet Jewry who, according to last year’s JPR survey, overwhelmingly opposed the settlement drive on the West Bank. Unintelligent protests deter, not recruit.
Professor Colin Shindler was active in the Soviet Jewry campaign between 1966 and 1975. His book ‘Israel and the European Left: Between Solidarity and Delegitimisation’ will appear at the end of the year.