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A 30th Anniversary, Soviet Jews, and the making of history

The largest US Jewish demonstration in history is worth remembering
On the eve of Mikhail Gorbachev's first visit to the US in 1987, 250,000 activists marched on Washington DC to demand freedom for Soviet Jewry. (Courtesy of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry)
On the eve of Mikhail Gorbachev's first visit to the US in 1987, 250,000 activists marched on Washington DC to demand freedom for Soviet Jewry. (Courtesy of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry)

On December 6, 1987, 30 years ago, more than 250,000 people gathered in Washington to call on the Kremlin to open the gates and let Soviet Jews emigrate. Freedom Sunday, as it came to be known, was the largest Jewish-organized gathering in American history.

The timing was not random.

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was scheduled to meet with US President Ronald Reagan in the White House the very next day. It was to be the Soviet leader’s first official visit to the US since he assumed office in 1985, following the death of Konstantin Chernenko.

In 1987, the number of Jews allowed to leave the USSR was pitifully low. Many Soviet Jews continued to languish in the Gulag for their activism, while some refusenik families had been living in limbo behind the Iron Curtain for years, if not longer.

I had the privilege of serving as the national coordinator of Freedom Sunday. It was an indescribably exhilarating and inspiring experience, but there were challenges aplenty.

First, we had barely five weeks’ notice of Gorbachev’s arrival date to plan the event. The myriad details, big and small, made it a 24/7 job for the dedicated team in charge of assembling the pieces.

Second, the previous record attendance for a Jewish rally in Washington was 12-13,000 people. That was to support Israel in a defining time of war – June 1967.

What would our number look like against that unimpressive backdrop, especially in the dead of winter? Could a poor turnout actually damage the Soviet Jewry cause by signaling to the Kremlin a low level of interest in the issue?

And third, despite the impression of a united Soviet Jewry movement, there were deep fissures between the so-called, if misnamed, “establishment” and the “activists.” (Having been detained twice by Soviet authorities, expelled from the country once, denied entry to the USSR because of my “past political history,” and involved in clandestinely sending thousands of Jewish books and other items to Soviet Jews, was I disqualified from being an “activist” because I was connected to an “establishment” organization, the American Jewish Committee?) Would everyone put aside their perceived differences and stand together as one for this single day?

Much credit goes to Natan Sharansky, the legendary prisoner of conscience who spent nine years in the Soviet camps before being released in 1986, for setting the organizers’ sights high. He insisted that there must be a mass rally, and set the goal at 250,000 participants. Frankly, no one had a clue how we might attain the number, but Sharansky, given his personal history of staring down the KGB, was not easy to dissuade.

It was extraordinary to watch those 35 days of preparation unfold. Most striking was to see the response of Jewish communities across the United States, in Canada, and in other countries. Reports would trickle in of, first, one bus or planeload from a given city or college campus, then an updated report of two, or three, or four, or five.

Anecdotally, the organizers also began hearing about those planning to show up who said they had never before attended a protest rally, but felt this was history in the making and wanted to be a part of it.

It was especially noteworthy to see how many times people referred to the Holocaust, citing the ineffectiveness of the Jewish community here during the Second World War and saying that American Jews needed to learn the lessons of their own history and speak out.

In the end, more than 250,000 people participated, including, it should be noted, a sizable number of non-Jews. The weather was brisk but sunny. There was no shortage of prominent speakers, among them U.S. Vice President George H.W. Bush. Indeed, one of the biggest challenges, in the end, turned out to be trying to manage the large number of political and civic leaders, former Soviet Jewish prisoners and refuseniks, and other notable figures who wanted to speak – and, more often than not, ignored the strict time limit we put on each speech!

Media coverage was extensive. Perhaps most significantly, Voice of America broadcast the rally to Soviet listeners, which, we later learned, was a huge morale boost for Jews sitting by their radios.

And, as has been documented, when Reagan and Gorbachev met in the Oval Office the next day, the American leader cited the rally as an unmistakable expression of public opinion and urged his Soviet counterpart to heed the message.

The rest, as they say, is history. The gates began to open and Soviet Jews started to leave in large numbers. Eventually, more than a million Russian-speaking Jews settled in Israel, profoundly transforming the country and revitalizing the Zionist spirit.

Unexpectedly, Germany became the fastest-growing Diaspora community in the world, with tens of thousands of new arrivals from the Soviet space. And the U.S. drew hundreds of thousands, to the point where more than ten percent of the Jewish community hails from the Soviet Union—or now, in one of my favorite sets of initials, the FSU.

Not only is this whole story important in and of itself, but it can also serve as a case study in what is possible, against all the odds, if only the Jewish people stand together, persevere, and join forces with others of good will. Yet, disappointingly, the event seems largely to have faded from view, rarely cited in synagogues, schools, or communal discussion.

December 6 is a date worth remembering and celebrating for what it achieved — and, above all, as a telling reminder of what is potentially within our grasp.

About the Author
David Harris is the CEO of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).
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