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.
Lookstein: I went down on the buses with my people. Coming into RFK [Stadium, the staging area for bus parking] was tedious, but it was also very exciting. I remember standing in the middle of that throng of a quarter of a million people. It was thrilling! Everybody was excited and I would say happy. That was the mood. It was almost like a celebration.
Cohen: It was definitely celebratory. And I was very ambivalent about the fact that it was a celebration. I had a feeling we should be draping the podium in black, that it should be much more somber. I just felt the celebration was premature. But then I remember seeing the crowd and the placards and the faces of the people who were there. It looked like an endless sea of Jews. And it did what it was supposed to do. It put Reagan in the position of being able to say to Gorbachev, you think this is my issue, because Shultz has made it an issue. But this put it right in the Soviets’ face. The demonstration was an explosive event that was a culmination of all the hard slogging and inglorious work we’d been doing all those years.
Green: There was more at stake on an issue level because of Gorbachev. Because we really needed Reagan to be able to look out the window and say, “Look at those people.”
Sharansky: There was an argument that we should not be spoiling the peace. I had come with Avital to America, and I decided to use it as a pretext to see Reagan, because he had met many times with my wife while I was in prison, and he met with me after my release, but we never met together. So, that was the pretext, that we wanted to thank him. We met with him just before the Jewish New Year. But I had a hidden agenda, and my hidden agenda was to get a blessing from him, for the demonstration. So, I said to President Reagan, “You know soon the general secretary of the Communist Party, Mr. Gorbachev, will come, and I want you to know that we, Jewish activists, are going to have a big demonstration, and I want you to understand that it’s not directed in any way against your policies. I was trying to be very careful because I didn’t want to ask him for permission but I want him to say something. And he stops me in the middle of it and says, “Somebody can think that I want friendship with him when he is keeping his people in prison? You do everything you have to do. And I’ll do everything. You don’t have to ask me. Do what you have to do!”
Norman Goldstein (organizer of daily vigils for Soviet Jews at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, 1970-1991): The day of the rally was a phenomenally beautiful day. They had a reception at the B’nai B’rith building, and then we walked to Farragut Square toward the march. And at the exit of the Metro all of a sudden you saw droves of people, and they were all carrying flags—American flags, Israeli flags, signs saying, “Let my People Go.” We had trouble getting a minyan for the vigil, so you can’t imagine the feeling of it, when we’d worked on this cause for so many years. Everyone showed up, young and old, religious and secular, left-wing and right-wing. You can’t imagine the feeling of it.
Lasensky: I remember the buzz of the rally. It was freezing. I was wearing my letterman jacket. We were California kids, so we didn’t have anything else! We staged at the White House; I remember seeing the anti-nuclear protesters. Washington was quite foreign to me, and we were told where to go. There was a banner, an Orange County banner, and the BBYO people gathered with the rest of the Orange County delegation, but we broke off pretty quickly, and my friend and I climbed up a light pole. I was a stunt-prone young person. But it was hard to see anything, and the light pole was a good way to get a perspective on it.
Harris: The Ellipse [in front of the White House] was the staging ground. We had state signs, and people were supposed to congregate that way. And then from the Ellipse we marched down to the Mall.
Goldstein: My son was 3 or 4 years old, and I marched with him on my shoulders, and a sign that said, “Goldstein.” And there was a guy I went to visit in Kiev, very shortly before the march, maybe in 1986, and I never imagined I’d see him again. But then there he was. We ran into him literally by chance.
Osadchey: I’d been a student at Berkeley, so I’d been involved in every imaginable demonstration, but when we got to the Mall, none of these kids knew what to do. We had this big banner, “Houston Stands Tall for Soviet Jewry,” so I got everyone behind the banner. I was wearing a brown coat with all my Soviet Jewry buttons on it, and we all had ten-gallon Stetsons. We were quite a sight to behold.
Sharansky: We walked in the parade, it was Elie Wiesel, Morris Abram, and myself, and we still didn’t know what would be there on the Mall. I was very nervous. Elie was very relaxed, very positive, but we both felt very responsible for this. And then we heard the report of the police, and they said 50,000. Then we heard the report that said 100,000. And I thought, all right, now there can be rain.
Harris: The world, the Kremlin, was watching, and we responded. The media was watching, and I realized that all they were going to report was the number of people who were there. So, when the police counted 250,000, I realized it didn’t matter whether people ran over their time to speak, or whether people had to wait in line for the Port-A-Sans, or for shuttles at RFK. We weren’t throwing a bar mitzvah. We were throwing a political moment.
If the past few weeks are any guide, it looks like the open feud between Jerusalem and Washington is over