Thirty years ago, on December 6, 1987, the largest rally held in the history of the Soviet Jewry movement took place in Washington, DC. Its success was a testament to the vision and moral leadership of Natan Sharansky. In holding the rally just days before the summit between US president Ronald Reagan and USSR president Mikhail Gorbachev, the throngs declared, in no uncertain terms, that the time had come to open the gates and release Soviet Jewry.
When Sharansky first conceived the idea, I was skeptical. I did not think thousands would come. What I didn’t know was that Sharansky himself would travel from community to community, urging people to join. The rally was the pure result of his vision, his drive and his belief that the amcha, the ordinary people, would stand up to be counted.
In the beginning, the establishment declined to lend a hand. Only after it became clear that Sharansky was making headway did the establishment jump on board. To their credit, once committed to the rally establishment leaders pulled out all the stops to encourage maximum attendance. They also deserve credit for pulling together the complicated logistics. Sharansky united all the major groups and players – from the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ) to the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews (UCSJ) to the Coalition to Free Soviet Jews (CFSJ), and, yes, to the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ). We were all there in force. Even Jacob Birnbaum, father of the Soviet Jewry movement and founder of the SSSJ was invited to sit on stage, although as usual the SSSJ was the only national organization not allowed to put forward a speaker to address the rally.
Today, the Soviet Jewry rally on the Mall is cited as a model example of what the Soviet Jewry movement was all about. The gathering of so many people who traveled great distances – raising a voice of Jewish conscience, of moral conscience – was unprecedented.
For me, however, the rally was not the movement’s defining moment. The Soviet Jewry movement was a visceral reaction of common folks around the world who, in small grassroots demonstrations everywhere, raised a voice of Jewish conscience. Ten people here, a hundred there, came to understand that as they stood, others stood elsewhere, speaking out for their sisters and brothers with similar passion and commitment. American Jews, indeed Jews worldwide, coalesced into a family of protesters who spoke out relentlessly, powerfully and endlessly.
The Washington rally, a much more professional gathering, lacked this earthiness. It excluded Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the sweet singer of the Soviet Jewry movement. (Shlomo mentioned this painful slight to me on several occasions.) The simple bullhorn, or megaphone, was replaced by a professional voice of a man who could not be seen, announcing the next speaker, Hollywood style. The SSSJ message of remaining tough on the Soviets was not heard. Although vice president George H.W. Bush spoke at the event, we activists wanted no less than president Reagan to hear our demand that he keep up the pressure, and specifically that the Jackson-Vanik Amendment be kept intact.
Though many gathered together that brisk Sunday in Washington, it was hardly a time of Jewish unity for Soviet Jewry. In December 1987, Soviet Jewry organizations were split on the issue of glasnost, the term used to describe Mikhail Gorbachev’s program of increasing government transparency in the Soviet Union. The Jewish establishment believed Gorbachev was being honest; the activists did not.
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For this reason, on the Shabbat before the rally, the activists convened a Shabbat vigil in front of the Washington offices of the Soviet airlines, Aeroflot. The legendary Sister Rose Thering, of blessed memory, played a critical role, carrying the Torah through the Washington streets so that we could read it at the outdoor services. Important grassroots Soviet Jewry activists from around the country were there, as well. Some were wearing memorable T-shirts, on the back of which were splashed the words “glasnost shmasnost,” poking fun at the so called openness of the Soviet government.
The establishment and activists were also split on the future of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, the legislation that tied freedom of emigration to the Soviet’s trade relationship with the United States. Despite glasnost, many activists felt that it could not be done away with. This position was barely reflected in the large rally. For this reason, two days later, activists were arrested protesting in front of the Soviet Embassy in Washington, demanding that Jackson-Vanik remain intact until Soviet Jewry was free.
For the establishment, the rally turned into a euphoric victory celebration. The best indicator of this was the absence of follow-through in the weeks and months thereafter. It was not surprising that the CFSJ-sponsored New York Solidarity rally, which had annually attracted tens of thousands, was canceled for the first time in many years a few months later. This despite the fact that another Reagan-Gorbachev summit was soon to take place. It was as if the movement was being officially retired. Former refusenik Yosef Begun expressed deep disappointment in the cancellation: “We have no right to weaken our struggle and pressure on the Soviet Union.”
For the activists, the Washington rally heralded some of the most difficult – and dangerous – years. Precisely then, with the Soviet Union on the ropes, with hints of greater Soviet openness, we called for greater vigilance. With the SSSJ and UCSJ activists standing almost alone, much like in the earliest years of the struggle, we felt a sense of déjà vu. This time it was more difficult. Whereas at the outset the activists had filled a void, now the establishment was fully in place. Whatever the activists did had to be done over the strong objections of the mainstream organizations.
A rally the size of the Washington event – some say as many as 200,000 people were there – should have triggered a massive outpouring of support. But, instead, a lull set in at a particularly dangerous time for Soviet Jewry.
It’s precisely when victory seems at hand that one is most vulnerable. And the activists knew this and kept the pressure on for a good three to four more years, pressure that was critically necessary to finally free Soviet Jewry.
It’s 30 years later. Younger activists have grown older. Looking back, I see what I could not see then. I’ve come to recognize the tremendous commitment and organizational skills of the establishment. But if we are to teach what the Soviet Jewry movement was truly about, we must keep the record straight.
Let the commemoration of this rally trigger a deeper study of the movement. Young Jews today do not know the story of Soviet Jewry; they have no idea there are countless heroes living in their midst. They do not know the names and the stories of Soviet Jewish heroes like Ruthie Alexandrovich, Yasha Kazakov, Boris Kochubiyevsky, Yosef Mendelevich, Vladimir Slepak, Sylva Zalmanson and Roald Zelichonok.
Nor do they know the names of their junior partners, the activists in the West who forced Gorbachev’s hands. Together they formed a movement that was made up of millions of humble heroes – young and old, across denominations, across oceans and across faiths.
With the help of God, the movement had a good ending: the meeting of Jews from the East with Jews from the West. That rendezvous echoed the biblical moment when Joseph and his brothers meet after 22 years of separation. When they finally see each other, Joseph asks: Is my father still alive? Ha’od avi chai? The question is left unanswered in the Bible. It was left to our sister and brothers from the Soviet Union thousands of years later to respond. Od avinu chai – Yes, our father is still alive. Am Yisrael chai – The People of Israel Lives.The writer is a rabbi and the author of Open Up the Iron Door: Memoirs of a Soviet Jewry Activist.
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