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1989 and the Jews

Eastern Bloc liberalism changed the Former Soviet Union and now Ukraine. Will the Velvet Revolution end there?

Paul Berman
December 29, 2014
1989: Lubomir Kotek/AFP/Getty Images; 2013: Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images
Demonstrations in Czechoslovakia in 1989 (left) and in Ukraine in 2014 (right). 1989: Lubomir Kotek/AFP/Getty Images; 2013: Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images
1989: Lubomir Kotek/AFP/Getty Images; 2013: Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images
Demonstrations in Czechoslovakia in 1989 (left) and in Ukraine in 2014 (right). 1989: Lubomir Kotek/AFP/Getty Images; 2013: Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

The 1989 East Bloc revolutions, whose 25th anniversary we have been reverently observing, aroused a lot of anxious worries at the time, and two of those worries were expressed by the estimable San Francisco poet Thom Gunn, back in 1990, in a mordant commentary titled “Eastern Europe (February 1990)”:

“The iron doors of history” give at last,
And we walk through them from a rigid past.
Free! free! we can do anything we choose
—Eat at McDonald’s, persecute the Jews.

And yet, when Gunn got around to reprinting “Eastern Europe” in one of his collections, Boss Cupid, in 2001, he placed it in a section called “Jokes, etc.,” as if to reduce his bite to merely a smile; and this was sensible, on his part. In the immediate years that followed the revolutions, Eastern Europeans in their sundry new liberal republics did eat at McDonald’s. But this did not seem to be a problem. And they did not persecute the Jews. On the contrary! The anti-Communist revolutions of circa 1989 turned out to be one of the greatest moments of liberation the Jews have ever known: a magna-event in the history of anti-anti-Semitism, and likewise in the history of anti-anti-Semitism’s political subset, which is anti-anti-Zionism.

The welcoming and tolerant spirit was, I can tell you, visible from the start. I did some reporting in what is now the Czech Republic during the later weeks of the Velvet Revolution, and people there knew very well the role played by their own Communist government in the anti-Zionist cause. The government supplied Semtex to Arab terrorists, and the terrorists blew up airplanes. And the Czechs were mortified. They did not want to be the enemies of Israel, or of civilization. They wanted a different policy. And, because their revolution was a success, the new policy was instated almost instantly.

The revolution elevated Václav Havel to the presidency—the election took place 25 years ago today. And, on one of his earliest official trips abroad, he made Jerusalem his destination, in order to accept an honorary degree from Hebrew University—which is to say, he participated ostentatiously in a cosmopolitan world that declined to exclude the Jews and the Jewish state. More: George Bush the Elder organized an international coalition to fight against Saddam Hussein, and Havel enlisted his country in the coalition and sent a chemical-weapons unit of the Czechoslovak army to Kuwait to join in the war—just to show that Czech and Slovak expertise in chemical weapons, which had previously tilted in favor of the Arab radicals, now tilted the other way.

But never mind the Czechs and the Poles (whose political turn was equally dramatic) and the other small and medium-sized East Bloc countries. The big development, in regard to the Jews, took place in the Soviet Union. Mikhail S. Gorbachev, in his campaign to dismantle the Stalinist system, decided to permit, at last, the Soviet Jews to emigrate. And so, the “iron doors” opened, and out they came, the Jews—in the hundreds of thousands to the United States and Germany and in numbers approaching a million to Israel, where their influence and constructive contributions have turned out to be massive.

What brought about these developments? It was liberalism that brought them about. Naturally not everything that took place during the East Bloc revolutions drew on liberal inspirations, which meant that, here and there, populists and priests with old-fashioned manias about the Jews rose to prominence and issued denunciations in a 1930s style, or in a 12th-century style. But the manias did not seem to get anywhere. The larger trend in Eastern Europe veered in liberal directions, even if vaguely; and a malign obsession with the Jews is antithetical to the liberal principle. This raises a further question. Mightn’t there be a possibility that liberalism, having secured some grand triumphs in Eastern Europe, could spread outward to still other parts of the benighted world? A global advance for liberal principles did seem likely, for a while; then, not so likely. I can understand why some people consider the question to be settled.

Eastern Europe, Addendum Number 1: Likewise I acknowledge the gloomy Hungarian counterexample. In Hungary right now, people eat at McDonald’s and persecute the Jews.

Eastern Europe, Addendum Number 2: Nonetheless, in Ukraine people eat at McDonald’s and are said (by Vladimir Putin) to persecute the Jews. But they do no such thing. I happened to be in Ukraine a few months ago—it was on behalf of The New Republic, about which I wrote earlier—and my wanderings led me to a Kiev synagogue. There I listened with respect to someone who pointed out that, in Kiev, synagogues do not require armed guards, even if Ukraine is afflicted with violence. The Ukrainian revolution of our own moment turns out to be a late-blooming flower of the revolutions of 1989, a quarter century delayed; and the rhythms of history turn out to be unpredictable; and it is not true that liberalism is an exhausted idea.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.