How We Freed Soviet Jewry
Twenty-five years ago today, a rally of 250,000 people changed the fate of Jews worldwide. An oral history.
Twenty-five years ago today, an estimated quarter of a million Americans, most of them Jews, flooded the Mall in Washington, D.C., to demand freedom for the refuseniks—Jews living inside the Soviet Union who were denied permission to leave the country. The Dec. 6, 1987, rally was planned for the day before a historic summit meeting at the White House between President Ronald Reagan and leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. The demonstration was the brainchild of Natan Sharansky, the most famous of all the refuseniks, who spent nine years in a Moscow prison on charges of being an American spy until his release and emigration to Israel in February 1986. It capped more than 15 years of organized efforts to assist Jews living under Communist rule—and became the largest protest on behalf of a Jewish cause ever in the United States.
Perhaps most impressively, it mobilized the American Jewish community—young and old, secular and religious, liberal and conservative—behind a single cause to a degree that had never been seen before, and has not been seen since.
This is a history of the march as told by people who were there and who helped make it happen. They include Jack Lew, President Obama’s chief of staff; Fred Zeidman, one of Mitt Romney’s key Jewish advisers; and Sharansky, who went on to found the Israeli political party Yisrael B’Aliyah, which eventually merged with Likud. All agree the Dec. 6 rally was a landmark event in modern Jewish history.
Natan Sharansky (former refusenik, now Jewish Agency chairman): It was Elie Wiesel who at some meeting with students, maybe even before my release, said that it would be good to have a march on Washington. And we didn’t know yet when, but at some moment we knew Gorbachev had to come to Washington. So, when I came in May of 1986 for the first time to America, Ed Koch had a reception for Jewish leaders at Gracie Mansion, and I said, “When Gorbachev comes, let’s have 400,000 American Jews come to Washington, in order to remind him that there are 400,000 Soviet Jews.” Everybody smiled and was happy, but it wasn’t taken too seriously.
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein (leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan and principal of the Ramaz School): Natan told me about his plan months and months in advance. I was initially skeptical he could pull it off—getting 250,000 people to come to Washington is really a huge, huge effort. But he was really determined to do it.
Sharansky: In the summer of 1987 it was already clear to me that in a few months, Gorbachev will come and nothing had happened. Morris Abram, who was the head of the Conference of Presidents [of Major American Jewish Organizations], said to me, “Natan, we cannot guarantee hundreds of thousands of Jews, so let’s do what is possible. We will bring 100 senators to the steps of the Capitol and they will declare to Gorbachev, ‘Let our people go,’ and that will be very powerful.” I said, 100 senators is great, but Gorbachev knows very well that’s just politics. I wanted expression, mass expression. Then my friend Avi Weiss, who was the head of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, he says, “Natan, you cannot trust the establishment, so I tell you what we will do, we will bring 100 rabbis and we will chain ourselves to the gates and we will be arrested, and that will be something real.” So, it was between 100 senators and 100 rabbis.
Gordon Zacks (former adviser to George H.W. Bush): Natan and I were in constant contact. He came to me to get counsel on how to proceed. I finally told him it was never going to happen through the establishment organizations, and that it if was going to happen at the magnitude he wanted it to, he was going to have to be the guy who went around to college campuses to create the energy and excitement he needed. And that’s what he did.
Sharansky: People said, “You are sitting in Jerusalem, and you come here from time to time and say let’s have a march, but that’s not serious.” They said move for a few months to America. So, at the end of August 1987 I came with my wife and our 10-month-old daughter. Some friends gave us an apartment in New York. And then Jack Lew, who was not part of the movement but was a very close friend, helped in Washington. He was a lawyer then, and his office became the coordinating office.
Jack Lew (former policy adviser for House Speaker Tip O’Neill, now White House chief of staff): My wife and I had become part of the circle that helped Avital if she needed a place to stay, if she needed someone to drive her somewhere, if she needed help making a decision. She really became part of our community. The law firm where I was, Van Ness Feldman, was not a random place. A lot of people there had worked for Scoop Jackson, and had been involved in the history of the Jackson-Vanik amendment. So, they knew the issue and they really considered it an honor to work with Natan.
Sharansky: I was in 30 different communities, almost to the day of the demonstration. In every community there were people who knew me, or knew Avital, and there were activists everywhere. And in every community where I spoke, they were very enthusiastic about a demonstration. So, I couldn’t understand from where all these doubts came from in these meetings in New York and Washington. It was such a contrast between people who felt they could not take such responsibility and everyone who wanted it at the local level.
Lew: Natan did all the trips, and David Makovsky and I alternated traveling with him, whether it was Minneapolis, Chicago, or Kansas City. Wherever he went, he’d draw a huge audience. He asked people to charter buses and airplanes, and they started doing it. And it became clear that a lot of people were going to come.
If the past few weeks are any guide, it looks like the open feud between Jerusalem and Washington is over