Remembering the Soviet Jewry vigil in Washington – and a rare moment of Jewish unity

The Soviet Jewry movement was in the news over the weekend because of Henry Kissinger’s astoundingly offensive statement to former President Richard Nixon that “if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern.”  Thirty-six years after he resigned in disgrace, we’re still learning just how anti-Semitic – and how bigoted toward just about every other minority – Nixon and his cronies really were.

But in Washington there was another reason to remember that unique moment in Jewish history.

On Friday a number of Jewish groups marked the 40th anniversary of the start of the daily vigil for Soviet Jewry in downtown Washington, which went on for an amazing 21 years.

I didn’t get to the anniversary event, mostly because nobody told me about it in advance, but it did bring back some memories – and some disturbing comparisons with the current state of the Jewish world.

For years, assorted Jewish groups maintained a quiet but persistent daily vigil across the street from the Soviet embassy, just a few blocks from the White House, reminding the world that millions of Jews were still trapped in that inhospitable land.

Periodically I’d go down and cover the silent protests, and what was so interesting is that they reflected a Jewish community that could come together around a core issue that transcended politics, ideology and theology.

Reform synagogues participated alongside Orthodox shuls; liberal groups walked alongside conservative ones; Jewish liberals stood shoulder to shoulder with neo-cons before the word was even in popular usage..

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, put it nicely. The vigil, he said at Friday’s event, “emboldened, mobilized and unified the Washington Jewish community. While there were a corps of organizers, some of whom are here today, almost every Jewish community institution got involved. Synagogues, sisterhoods, brotherhoods, chapters of national organizations and local organizations, and above all the JCC – all would take responsibility for a day and for the sake of a cause that at first seemed hopeless.”

The result, Saperstein, said, is that “this ongoing protest became a world-wide known presence of hope; because of them, every Jewish group that visited Washington for two decades made participating in the vigil a rite of passage, a badge honor; in part because of them, Members of Congress and their wives took up the battle; and in part because of them one president and then another took up the battle, and it is not too much to say that because of them, the hopeless cause became a cause of hope, a moral cause célèbre known and admired widely across the globe.”

I’m wondering if this kind of thing can happen in today’s harsher, more divisive climate. Are there still causes that unite an increasingly fragmented Jewish community?

Certainly not a strong, relatively secure Israel, now one of the biggest sources of angry division. There aren’t any more big foreign Jewish populations that need rescue. “Continuity” is a concern across the religious spectrum, but deepening “who is a Jew” divisions preclude broad coalition building around the issue.  For all the talk about how it represents Israel’s biggest existential threat, Iran hasn’t touched the Jewish grassroots like the Soviet Jewry did.

Jewish unity has always been an elusive thing; the Soviet Jewry movement and the vigil in Washington showed that it’s not impossible.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.