Human Rights and the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry

Human Rights Day is observed annually across the world on 10 December. It marks the date the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (10 December 1948), the first global enunciation of human rights. The Declaration begins by recognising that “the inherent dignity of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. It declares that human rights are universal – to be enjoyed by all people, no matter who they are or where they live. Today, the Declaration continues to inspire the human rights movement and has had a profound influence on the development of international human rights law.

Members of the 35’s demonstrating for the release of Raiza Palatnik

Members of the 35’s demonstrating for the release of Raiza Palatnik

The Soviet Jewry movement emerged in response to the Soviet Union’s Jewish policy which was seen as a violation of basic human and civil rights, including freedom of immigration, freedom of religion, and the freedom to study one’s own language, history and culture. The Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry, known as the 35’s, was a pressure group established in London in 1971 with the aim of assisting Russian Jews wishing to leave the country but refused permission. It was originally formed in response to the arrest of Raiza Palatnik, a 35 year old librarian from Odessa. Raiza had been sent to prison after being convicted of “slandering the Soviet Union” for applying to leave for Israel. The group was primarily made up of relatively young middle-class Jewish housewives from North West London. They were a unique phenomenon among the Jewish community in Britain and were active at a time when it was unheard of for Jewish women to go out and demonstrate.

They maintained direct contact with refusniks (an unofficial term for Soviet Jews denied permission to emigrate) to give them moral support, and worked tirelessly to highlight their position. They achieved this through a series of active and unexpected demonstrations, particularly at Soviet cultural events. One such demonstration took place at a performance by the Bolshoi Ballet in London where the women revealed slogan t-shirts beneath their blouses as a mark of protest. In addition to such demonstrations they lobbied government officials and Members of Parliament.

The collection held by the Special Collections Division contains files of biographical information and case papers for refusniks; campaign correspondence, including letters to Members of Parliament; master copies of publications produced by the Campaign; newspapers; photographs, banners and other items, including handcuffs, from demonstrations.

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