The Free Soviet Jewry March: A Moment of Unity for American Jews

  • by:
    • Ken Jacobson, Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League
  • December 6, 2017
free soviet jewry

It has often been noted that remembering past events usually leads to an unfounded nostalgia for a so-called golden past. When undergoing close examination, the past usually was not so rosy as imagined and not much better than today.

On so many levels this is not true as we look back this week at the 30th anniversary of the historic rally on behalf of Soviet Jewry in Washington, D.C. The rally, which had 250,000 participants, including Jews and others from around the United States, was a high point of community activism and unity.

It was not that there weren’t divisions within the community on how to deal with the issue of Soviet Jews. The usual, more radical advocates were present and contentions existed over where Soviet Jews should go when they were allowed to leave – Israel, or America.

But at that critical moment – on December 6, 1987 – with a different leader in the Soviet Union and a belief that the moment was at hand to fundamentally change the equation for Soviet Jews, the community came together in a stunning way on that cold, sunny day in the nation's capital.

President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev were scheduled to meet at the White House the following day. The potential for change in the Soviet Union was already afoot with Glasnost, Gorbachev’s new openness, already in the air.

The message from that fantastic turnout to Washington’s political leadership and to Gorbachev was that American Jews were more steadfast than ever in working to liberate their brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union.

And as expectations were rising among Soviet Jews that freedom was near at hand, this astonishing show of support gave great strength to the Jews of the Soviet Union.

There were many people who deserve credit for the remarkable success of that day, including Natan Sharansky, who originated the concept; David Harris, who played a significant role in organizing and coordinating the community, and countless others.

But the deeper truth is that this was the culmination of a remarkable grassroots effort of the Jewish community. For 15 years, the fate of Soviet Jews became deeply personal through the names of refuseniks who were identified and supported by different communities.

As we look back on that day from our own times, two things stand out.

First was the way the community was able to come together so quickly in a common effort. Living today in a time of polarization, partisanship and apathy, those days leading up to December 6, 1987 do indeed look like glorious times.

Of course, we recognize the issues have changed; but having said that, that broad-based unity reflected in the rally is hard to imagine in the current environment.

Let’s not forget that the movement shaped U.S. Jewish advocacy for a generation. Many of the leaders of leading Jewish organizations today came to Jewish political consciousness through this.

The best way to celebrate the 30th anniversary is to ask ourselves why that was achieved and what all of us can do to regain some of that sense of common purpose that was alive that day.

Second, is the very different position the United States was in to affect positive change.

This was a time when American leadership of the free world was unchallenged and adversaries like the Soviets knew that America was a powerful leader of an alliance of nations seeking freedom and democracy. America's reputation preceded it.

Therefore, when the president of the United States could point out to the Soviet leader, that 250,000 activists had just demonstrated on behalf of freedom for Soviet Jews, that had tremendous resonance.

Today, American leadership is in question. Some of that was inevitable in a changing world, some of it a product of more recent American behavior and policies.

The Soviet Jewry rally 30 years later should remind us that both the unity of the community and the role of America as leader in the world were the two key elements, along, of course, with the existence of Israel, in protecting the Jewish people in the post-Holocaust world.

The last 70 years in many ways has been a glorious period in the history of the Jewish people. That sunny, cold day in Washington was a climax, one that we should continue to celebrate and to aspire to in the months and years ahead.