Los Angeles — If it had been up to the leaders of the American Jewish establishment, the largest demonstration for a Jewish cause in U.S. history would never have happened.
But thanks in large part to the vision, passion, and sheer drive of Natan Sharansky, the iconic Prisoner of Zion who initiated the rally and worked tireless to galvanize the community, more than 250,000 people gathered on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall on a bright, frigid Sunday afternoon, Dec. 6, 1987, and made history.
The outpouring of solidarity with millions of Jews trapped in the Soviet Union, unable to practice their religion or emigrate to freedom, coincided with a summit the following day at the White House between President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev — a dramatic effort to pressure the Soviet president to open the gates of emigration.
At the White House, Reagan told Gorbachev: “Yesterday I had 250,000 people in my backyard saying, ‘Let my people go.’ Until you do what they want, nothing will happen.”
As a result, things began to change. And though it took almost a decade for the mass exodus to culminate, the events of Freedom Sunday, as the rally was known, marked a key turning point in the eventual release of more than a million Jews, most of them settling in Israel and the U.S.
On the eve of the 30th anniversary of that rally, and at a moment when the very notion of American Jewry coming together now for a common cause seems beyond the imagination, it may be instructive to reflect on how a small grassroots movement led to one of the great achievements of the American Jewish community — especially given the odds of taking on the powerful Kremlin; why this extraordinary episode has not been widely heralded and taught as part of our communal curriculum; and whether there are lessons about communal commitment, messaging, and moral leadership that can be learned for the future.
On Sunday afternoon here, a segment of the opening plenary of the 86th annual General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella group for more than 100 federations in North America, highlighted the upcoming Freedom Sunday anniversary. A five-minute film was shown about the Soviet Jewry movement and the rally. Ilia Salita, the president and CEO of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, dedicated to inspiring and engaging Russian-speaking Jews around the world, thanked the federation movement for its work on behalf of Genesis and all those who gained their freedom through the Soviet Jewry movement.
He noted with pride the accomplishments of those who came to the U.S., and the next generation, and he expressed collective gratitude for the Jewish community’s efforts.
“You helped us get settled, you were generous and kind … and you opened your doors and our hearts,” he said, crediting the community for its efforts in achieving “one of the most successful emigrations in American history.”
The large audience burst into applause when Salita concluded his remarks. It was a poignant moment, especially for those of us who remembered Freedom Sunday.
From all around the country we came that day, by every mode of transportation but most memorably by charter buses, more than 1,000 from the New York area alone, rolling into the nation’s capital. As the throngs descended on the Mall, the mood turned from somber to celebratory as we looked around in wonder, watching our numbers swell — as did our pride — beyond anything imagined. For several hours that afternoon we listened to rambling speeches from a seemingly endless list of politicians and dignitaries, saving our greatest ovations for Sharansky, the most famous of the refuseniks; he had languished for more than nine years in the Soviet gulag, much of it in solitary, for the crime of seeking to make aliyah.
“The Soviets have to know,” Sharansky told the crowd, “that no missiles and tanks, no camps and prisons, can extinguish the light of the candle of freedom.”’
Thousands of signs proclaimed, “Let My People Go,” the mantra of a movement that began among a small number of grassroots activists more than two dozen years earlier and reached a crescendo of commitment, unity, and pride.
Sharansky, now approaching the last months of his nine-year tenure as chairman of the executive of Jewish Agency for Israel, bemoans the fact that the history of the Soviet Jewry movement is all but forgotten in Israel as well as the U.S.
“It’s very unfortunate that the movement that changed the world is almost nonexistent today in our educational curriculum and in the historical memory of our people,” Sharansky told me in a phone interview from Jerusalem.
He said the movement was uniquely successful because it included all peoples who cherished liberal values and the cause of human rights as well as those “with a Jewish identity, willing to fight anti-Semitism.
“There was no contradiction,” he said, in contrast to now, when “if you say you are a Zionist, you are not considered a liberal.” The cause of “human rights has been hijacked, and the banner of patriotism is suspect,” he observed.
Concern about overreaching
Sharansky has always credited “the housewives and students” who personified the grassroots effort that fueled the movement which led to his release. But from the outset of the movement in the U.S., sparked by Elie Wiesel’s “The Jews Of Silence,” an account of his 1965 visit to the Soviet Union, there was friction — and sometimes bitter division — among the various advocates on behalf of Soviet Jewry. There were the grassroots activists like the late Yaakov Birnbaum, who founded the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ), and his tireless colleague, Glenn Richter, who together kept up the pressure with countless demonstrations at the Soviet consulate; the militant Jewish Defense League, led by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated violent tactics; and the more conservative Jewish establishment groups, which came late to the cause and often called for quiet diplomacy rather than confrontation.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, then a leader of SSSJ, said that while the 1987 rally was “a tremendous logistical feat” and “the linchpin” in turning the tide for the Soviet Jewry movement, “it was hardly a time of Jewish unity” for the cause.
He and others note that many of the clashes over strategy — activism vs. diplomacy — were motivated by responses to Gorbachev’s new and more lenient approach to political and social issues, known as glasnost (Russian for “open”). The establishment leaders were persuaded that the Russian leader was sincere; the activists were highly skeptical. The two sides differed on whether the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which in part restricted U.S. trade with the USSR unless Soviet Jews could leave, should be suspended to appease Gorbachev.
Another internal battle was between American Jewish leaders and the Israeli government over whether Soviet Jewish emigration should be directed toward Jerusalem, in the name of Zionism, or wherever those leaving the USSR chose to settle, in the spirit of freedom and human rights.
Sharansky, who aligned most with the grassroots activists, recalled that not long after his release from a Soviet prison and much-heralded arrival in Israel in early 1986, he began to speak out for a major rally on behalf of 400,000 Soviet Jews whom he said wanted to emigrate. (The Jewish establishment groups referred to 10,000 to 20,000 they estimated would leave.)
In the fall of 1986, during a Sharansky U.S. visit, American Jewish leaders warned him against overreaching, asserting that it would be extremely difficult to get tens of thousands of people to mobilize on short notice and come to Washington in the winter to demonstrate. Why risk the embarrassment of a small turnout that would convince Moscow that the Soviet Jewry movement is not a serious concern, they argued. Even Rabbi Weiss told Sharansky he didn’t think a massive rally was possible to organize.
As months went by, the establishment leaders were frustrated with Sharansky’s zeal. “They said to me, ‘Who are you to teach us how to have demonstrations?’” he recalled.
Judged by history
David Harris, executive director of the AJC, was the head of the group’s Washington office at the time, and described how Sharansky “challenged us and succeeded.” By the time it became known that Gorbachev was scheduled to meet with Reagan in Washington in early December 1987, there were only five weeks to mobilize a massive demonstration among the various Jewish groups. Sharansky undertook a whirlwind tour of more than 30 U.S. cities drumming up enthusiasm for the rally. Harris was freed up to coordinate the huge effort full-time, and funds poured in from Jewish federations and other philanthropic sources.
“We saw a shift in attitude, with people saying, ‘I’ll see you in Washington,’” Harris said. “People seemed to realize they had to go, they felt that if not, they would be judged poorly by history.”
In the end, a confluence of motivations — guilt over the Holocaust, the very real drama playing out in the USSR over basic freedoms, the human stories of the refuseniks, and the willingness of Jewish groups to work together — coalesced in the outpouring of commitment on Freedom Sunday.
‘We can make a difference’
Looking back, Zeesy Schnur, a public relations expert who spent 22 years working to free Soviet Jews — 12 years as director of the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry — said she was motivated in large part by her family history, her reading Elie Wiesel’s “Jews Of Silence” as a teenager, and her meeting Sharansky in Moscow in 1976, shortly before he was imprisoned.
A child of Holocaust survivors, Schnur said the subject wasn’t openly discussed at home but “I always felt it,” and the plight of Soviet Jewry resonated with her.
“I know it’s a cliché that one person can make a difference,” she told me. “But the courage of those Jews who sought to leave the Soviet Union inspired us and gave us a sense of purpose.” Freedom Sunday was “a great day, but there was still much work to be done.”
Schnur said it is important to “remember what we did that was right and correct, and to realize that we need to stand up for issues of human rights, inside and beyond the Jewish community, and to respond quickly.”
She said it was “embarrassing” that the American Jewish community did not do more “to stand up and defend the European Jewish community” during the recent waves of anti-Semitism including the 2015 attack of a kosher supermarket in Paris
Schnur and the others interviewed here stressed the need for teaching the lessons — positive and negative — of the struggle for Soviet Jewry, whether as a formal curriculum in Jewish schools or in other ways. And in light of Ilia Salita’s expression of gratitude this week at the GA, Rabbi Weiss said, “We American Jews should thank the brave Soviet Jews for standing up and for inspiring us.”
Yossi Klein Halevi, the Israeli journalist and author, who, as a 14-year-old in Brooklyn was active in the JDL’s efforts for Soviet Jewry, wrote in an email this week: “The movement’s success was based, in part, on its emphasis on klal Yisrael, working with the entirety of the Jewish people. It was the last great expression of the ideology of klal Yisrael, and that is its challenge to Jews today. Are we still capable of functioning as one people, on any issue?
“Yaakov Birnbaum, the founder of the movement, spoke before he died of establishing a Soviet Jewry Liberation Day, that would celebrate one of the greatest moral victories in Jewish history and promote the message of klal Yisrael. That’s one way of ensuring that the Soviet Jewry movement isn’t forgotten.”
Perhaps finding a way to mark one of American Jewry’s greatest efforts in communal cohesion can help heal the deep wounds that divide us today.