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The successful movement to save Soviet Jewry offers some valuable lessons for Iranian Americans seeking democracy in the Islamic Republic

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Planting trees in support of Soviet Jews, 1975; demonstrating against the Iranian regime, 2009. (Collage: Tablet Magazine; ceremony: Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest; anti-Iran signs: Ramin Talaie/Getty Images and Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Soon after coming to power, the Nixon White House began to seek rapprochement with the Soviet Union—this was a “Russian reset,” 1970s-style. The United States would soften the Soviet Union, the administration’s thinking went, by building closer economic ties with the totalitarian superpower and engaging its leaders. But just as President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger began implementing this new strategic posture, a small group of American Jewish activists threw a wrench into the détente machine.

The activists sought to secure the right of thousands of Russian Jews—at risk of cultural extinction after years of forced assimilation under Communism—to leave the Soviet Union. Moscow should not receive most-favored trade status from the United States, American Jews insisted, unless and until their Soviet brethren were allowed to emigrate. Under immense pressure exerted by this movement, Congress would eventually pass the Jackson-Vanik amendment in 1974, which conditioned trade with the Soviet Union on Russian emigration policy. In the process, the movement transformed the nature of American foreign policy, helping to establish “the principle that human rights supersede national sovereignty, that democracies are morally bound to intervene in the internal affairs of dictatorships,” as the former activist Yossi Klein Halevi, now an Israeli author and journalist, has written.

Most Iranian Americans are likely unfamiliar with this inspiring saga. But they could learn a lot from its example. They, too, face a totalitarian adversary in the form of Iran’s clerical regime, which has trapped millions of their countrymen for over three decades. And just as the Soviet Jewry movement had to overcome the hostility of a U.S. administration obsessed with realpolitik, Iranian-Americans today are frustrated by a White House seemingly unmoved by the plight of dissidents in Iran. Like American Jews, Iranian Americans are a notoriously fractious bunch, divided by numerous ideological and generational fault lines—and torn between an assimilationist imperative and the urge to preserve their unique cultural and linguistic heritage in the United States.

Unlike the organized American Jewish community, Iranian Americans have been ineffective at mobilizing support for their cause of advancing democracy in Iran or even formulating a coherent political message. Disputes over the meaning and significance of historical traumas—from the 1979 revolution to the failures of the reform movement ushered in by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami—have frequently divided the Persian diaspora. Iranian American activism, moreover, has fundamentally failed at reaching a broad, mainstream audience.

Given the similarities between these two communities, the Soviet Jewry model may help Iranian Americans rethink and revitalize their own efforts to ensure that democratization and human rights are central pillars of U.S. policy toward Iran. Of course, there are contextual differences: Jewish activists in the 1970s and ’80s had the benefit of a Soviet dictatorship open to engagement, whereas the regime in Tehran relishes its isolation and defiance. Nevertheless, Iranian Americans can pick up quite a few lessons from the astonishing successes of the Soviet Jewry movement, which ultimately led to the downfall of Communism in Europe.

Balance the Particularistic Against the Universal

Almost as soon as they launched their movement, the Soviet Jewry activists were faced with a difficult branding dilemma. As Gal Beckerman explains in When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone, his magisterial history of the movement, these activists were animated by profoundly Jewish impulses. “The movement involved the whole soup of Jewish psychology—Holocaust guilt, fears of assimilation, all of these very particularistic Jewish concerns,” Beckerman told me. “But if it were limited to that, you would have just had a very small group of protesters screaming.” Aware of the risk that their movement might play as a narrowly ethnic one in the wider culture, the activists consciously grounded their message in the language of universal human rights and fundamental American ideals, such as religious freedom and freedom of movement. To broaden their impact, they reached out to civil rights leaders from outside the community and carefully framed their cause as a mainstream one.

Iranian Americans have struggled with this difficult balancing act. Too often, their rallies, advocacy literature, and messaging come across as part of a debate within the community. Last year, for example, I helped organize a rally in Boston to mark the first anniversary of the disputed 2009 presidential election in Iran. Benefiting from the counsel of some veteran, non-Iranian activists, we took steps to appeal to the broader Boston community. We billed the event as an “interfaith solidarity vigil,” secured the endorsements of civic leaders from Boston’s various ethnic communities, including the largest Latino-rights organization in Massachusetts, and began the rally with the U.S. national anthem.

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This is a great piece, Sohrab, and points not only to some analogies between the two movements but to some real and potential affinities.

Maybe you could direct interested readers here to opportunities for working to promote the broad goal of bringing, or re-establishing, democratic government in Iran.

Sohrab Ahmari says:

Hi Roy:

Many thanks for your kind words. I rarely comment on pieces I publish but I was moved by your interest in helping the cause. There are any number of things that you can do to help dissidents trapped in Iran and other prison-states: from calling your representatives (or MEPs if you’re Europe-based) to submitting letters to the editor speaking up for individual prisoners of conscience.

Depending on where you live, you can also reach out to your local Iranian-American community. Attending anti-regime rallies held by the exiles gives a huge moral boost; they need non-Iranian allies. (Though be warned of course that there are paranoid cranks in these communities who harbor abhorrent views about any number of issues. Iranians can also be very insular, so it might take some effort on your part.)

Wonderful piece Sohrab, thank you for exposing the fact that both groups that profess to speak for Iranian-Americans–NIAC and the MKO–are in fact only representative of a few thousands fanatics!

I wonder whether some prominent Iranian American figures might be positioned as spokespersons–in the way that Solzhenitsyn in this country served as a potent critic of the Soviet system. I don’t know whether that would imperil any family they had that remained in Iran, but it wouldn’t be difficult to come up with a shortlist of individuals whose personal achievements in the arts and scientists lent them the intellectual and moral heft to draw attention to the cause.

Additionally, given the entangled strands of Persian and Jewish history, it seems tragic to allow the official estrangement between Israel and Iran inhibit the building of ties at the individual and community level–beyond what already exists. The status quo won’t last forever, and I would think the richness of our shared heritage would provide a basis for a renewed relationship at some point in the future.

Incidentally, I have a facebook connection with Iranian American Youth, having some friends involved with them, but it’s DC based, and I’m in New York.

Great piece. Inspiring if frustrating. Iranians are capable of better. They deserve our support and trust that whatever comes after the Mullahs will be an improvement.

Dietz Ziechmann says:

This is a valuable insight into Iranian dissident politics. I wish your movement well. Don’t forget repression of the Ba’hai. A big distraction is the Iranian nuclear program. The government wants nuclear power (lacking an efficient petroleum-refining and utilization industry)and may or may not want a small nuclear arsenal for prestige and/or deterrence purposes against the West and the state of Israel. But measures taken against the regime must not be projected as anti-Iranian, as I think Obama has tried to do. It’s something of a balancing act.


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The successful movement to save Soviet Jewry offers some valuable lessons for Iranian Americans seeking democracy in the Islamic Republic