Soviet Jewry activist Michael Sherbourne, who coined term ‘refusenik,’ dies at 97

Jewish Agency chairman Sharansky spoke about Sherbourne’s greatness and the impact he had on plight of Soviet Jews in 1970s.

June 22, 2014 22:39
1 minute read.
Michael Sherbourne

Michael Sherbourne. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Michael Sherbourne, a human rights activist who played an influential role in the movement to win Jews the right to emigrate from the Soviet Union, died Saturday at the age of 97.

Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky spoke about Sherbourne’s greatness and the impact he had on the plight of Soviet Jews in the 1970s.

“At a time when there was no Internet, no satellite television, and no free communication at all between the Soviet Union and the free world, this modest teacher of the Russian language in London became the primary channel of communication between Soviet Jewish activists and Jews all over the world,” Sharansky said.

Sherbourne coined the term “refusenik” to describe Soviet Jews who were refused permission to leave the Soviet Union by the authorities.

“He was so deeply invested in our campaign that a word of his invention – refusenik – became our internationally recognized moniker,” Sharanksy said.

Sherbourne made thousands of telephone calls to many different organizations around the world to increase communication and awareness of the issue, in the hope of rescuing the many Jews still trapped in the Soviet Union.

Sherbourne was born in London in 1917 and served in the British armed forces during World War II.

He later joined the IDF as a Mahal foreign volunteer and fought in the War of Independence.

After his time in military service, Sherbourne earned degrees in Russian language and literature as well as Eastern European studies, giving him the knowledge to help with the struggles of Soviet Jews.

“He demonstrated that one passionate individual, with no institutional position or backing, can have an impact on the course of history,” Sharansky said.

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