Half a year after President Ronald Reagan famously exhorted Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down that wall, Vice President George H.W. Bush stood on the Mall in Washington, D.C., and issued another imperative: “President Gorbachev, let these people go!”
Thursday marks the 25th anniversary of the massive march on Washington that greeted Gorbachev’s first trip to the United States. In a feat of organization, the American Jewish community gathered a quarter-million people on a frigid day to bring visibility to a long-standing cause: freedom of movement for Jews not permitted to emigrate from the Soviet Union.
It was a vaunted moment of Jewish unity — a coalition that seems fantastical to imagine today. Forces from the left and right came together. The two sides of Jewish identity — a commitment to universal values such as human rights and a tribal allegiance to the survival of one’s own brethren — overlapped perfectly. Neoconservative Cold Warriors and Amnesty International activists marched hand in hand in solidarity.
Part of the success of the Washington march is that it was less a protest than a moment of celebration. It was held a day before Gorbachev’s arrival to avoid the appearance of opposition. By December 1987, the Kremlin’s policies had begun to moderate. Many of the long-standing refuseniks — Jews who had been refused exit visas — had finally been allowed to emigrate. Jailed activists such as Natan Sharansky were being released. And the number of issued exit visas was slowly rising, but would soon reach hundreds of thousands.
For his part, Reagan had put the cases of jailed and persecuted refuseniks on the agenda of every summit with the Soviets. In doing so, he was joining the legislative branch, which since the early 1970s had almost unanimously backed the movement. A landmark bill signed in 1975 even tied the Soviet-American trade relationship to an improvement in the emigration numbers.
By that cold morning in Washington, Gorbachev had gotten the message: There would be no rapprochement with the West unless the Soviet Union’s Jewish problem was solved. The movement supporting Soviet Jewry had become one of the most successful efforts by an American minority group to see its foreign-policy objectives become synonymous with those of the United States.
Today, the march is viewed by American Jews with nostalgia and sadness. No other gathering has matched its numbers, organization and effectiveness. More significantly, the unity that characterized the movement feels like a very distant memory.
Look at American Jews’ contentious conversation about Israel. For many embattled supporters worried about the survival of the Jewish state, human rights and international law are viewed with wariness and antagonism. The universal principles so important to Soviet Jewry activists now seem like weapons directed at Israel’s behavior. Conversely, the many liberal-minded Jews of America whose democratic ideals fueled their commitment to the cause of Soviet Jewish freedom now look upon any expression of tribal allegiance to the Jews living in Israel as anathema.
The Soviet Jewry movement managed to provide a rare moment of equilibrium, when a Jew’s identity as a member of a tribe and as a conscientious member of the human race were not in tension.
It’s impossible to imagine such a convergence happening again. For the near future, one side will continue to march for Darfur and the other will march against Iran.
But there are still lessons to glean. American Jews are not unique in their desire to get their countrymen to adapt their objectives. There are, for instance, Iranian-Americans who want a foreign policy that includes more support for dissident groups; Korean-Americans who worry that the plight of relatives trapped in North Korea is being ignored; Syrian-Americans who want U.S. arms to support the resistance to Bashar Assad.
The march, and the movement that it culminated, should be an example that the small interests of these groups can be elevated when they voice their concerns in an American tongue, using the language of self-evident freedoms that resonates with all of us. This will often mean negotiating this tension between parochial values and common ones, and finding the overlap. It’s not easy or obvious, but that’s where the power exists to move public opinion, to move governments, and — as it did 25 years ago — to offer freedom to a persecuted people.
Gal Beckerman is the author of “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry.”