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

Sohrab Ahmari
December 22, 2011
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)
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.

Still, there were heated debates about, among other things, the use of Persian-language slogans. While the younger organizers called for an English-only affair, we ultimately had to acquiesce to our communal elders. Needless to say, awkwardness ensued when non-Iranian attendees were asked to chant “Khamenei qaateleh, velaayatesh baateleh!” (Khamenei is a murderer, his guardianship null and voided!) Near the end of the rally, the older Iranians treated attendees to an impromptu rendition of Iran’s beloved pre-revolutionary national anthem. “What’s that song?” a passerby—precisely the sort of Bostonian who should have been inspired by our message of free elections and human rights—asked me. “Why don’t you sing the American anthem?” he asked. My insistence that we had in fact sung the American anthem, and my efforts to bring him to our side, were in vain; he had already written us off as yet another bunch of angry Middle Easterners chanting in a harsh-sounding, alien tongue. (It didn’t help that a small group of keffiyeh-clad, pro-Hamas counter-demonstrators had decided to share Boston’s Copley Square with us that day.)

Personalize the Plight of Dissidents

One of the most powerful aspects of the movement to save Soviet Jewry was the organizers’ insistence on personalizing the issue. They put the suffering of individual Soviet Jews and imprisoned dissidents—chief among them Anatoly Sharansky—at the forefront and made sure they became household names. “Its ability to personalize the problem was really the great success of the Soviet Jewry movement,” Klein Halevi told me. “We promoted the names of prisoners of conscience, and people in the community began to know not just Soviet Jewry but Ruth Alexandrovich and Boris Kochubievsky. American Jews took those personal stories and brought them to Congress, and congresspeople adopted Soviet Jewish prisoners, or refuseniks.” During the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and members of his administration prefaced meetings with their Soviet counterparts by inquiring about the status of individual Soviet Jews.

The Iranian pro-democracy cause has its own Sharanskys, Alexandroviches, and Kochubievskys. In the brutal crackdown that followed the stolen 2009 election, the Iranian pro-democracy movement found its first young martyr in Neda Agha Soltan, the beautiful young woman gunned down by security forces on the streets of Tehran. The heart-wrenching last few seconds of Neda’s life—captured on a cell-phone camera and seen by millions of YouTube viewers—became the Iranian movement’s rallying cry.

But Iranians and their compatriots in the diaspora need more than martyrs. Much more can be done to spotlight the plight of individual prisoners currently confined in Iran’s nightmarish political prisons. The human-rights lawyer Nasrin Sotudeh, who has represented prominent dissidents, the Ayatollah Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi, an outspoken advocate of the separation of mosque and state, and the labor organizer Reza Shahabi, who co-founded Iran’s first independent labor union, are just a few latter-day Sharanskys. All three are serving long, unjust sentences on bogus charges; all are at constant risk of torture. Why don’t Americans know their names?

Play Congress Against the White House When Necessary

To force a reluctant Nixon Administration’s hand, the Soviet Jewry movement turned to Congress. “The movement was forced upon the administration by Congress, which is a more populist institution.” Beckerman explained to me. “For many members of Congress, the thinking went, ‘I have nothing to gain by listening but I have something to lose if I don’t listen.’ They projected an image of greater strength than they actually had. You were talking about five housewives in Cleveland who are just calling their congressman’s office every day, but it worked.”

Iranian American advocacy on Capitol Hill, however, is comprised of numerous individuals and organizations, each more unprofessional than the next, clamoring for a self-contradictory gamut of Iranian causes. The two most coherent voices on Iran issues also happen to be the most odious: the National Iranian American Council, often accused of unofficially lobbying for the clerical regime, and the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, the Islamo-Marxist cult that helped the regime come to power but then was viciously crushed by the Khomeinists as they consolidated power in the aftermath of the revolution. The first group was notoriously reticent about addressing human rights issues prior to the 2009 uprising, advancing instead an uncannily mullah-friendly agenda that has discredited it among most Iranian Americans, who—for all their differences—viscerally despise the regime. Meanwhile, having allied itself with Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war, the second group enjoys little support beyond its dogmatic adherents. In other words, the time has come for Iranian Americans to develop a credible alternative voice in Washington that truly reflects their values.

Set Aside the Politics of Nostalgia and Establish the Communal Bottom-Line

Beyond these practical steps, there is the sensitive question of ideology. Iranians often imagine American Jews forming a monolithic—and supernaturally powerful—ideological bloc. But as the history of the Soviet Jewry movement demonstrates, the Jewish community was, as it is today, deeply divided on both tactical and ideological questions. For one thing, the grassroots nature of the movement frequently irritated the Jewish establishment. The establishment—carefully attuned to the needs of successive American administrations—feared that the bold, rambunctious grassroots might alienate the White House and jeopardize the entire range of Jewish causes. But from the perspective of the grassroots, said Beckerman, “any opportunity to make noise was an opportunity to make noise. So, when the Bolshoi Ballet would come to your town in Ohio, you would organize a picket of one thousand people outside and activists inside throwing stuff at the dancers—you were just as loud as possible.”

A more substantive disagreement arose over the final destination of émigrés streaming out of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Jews’ first waypoint was in Vienna, where they were processed and sent onward to Israel, helping boost the Jewish state’s population. But by the late 1970s, the vast majority of the émigrés were choosing to stay in the West with the help of Jewish refugee agencies, causing friction with the Israeli government. “For the Israelis, the movement was an entirely Zionist one,” Beckerman said. “But American Jews were torn: On the one hand, they wanted to help Israel, and on the other, to respect the principle that if someone is fleeing a totalitarian regime, you shouldn’t tell them where to go.”

Nevertheless—and here’s the lesson for Iranians—the community as a whole found a way to transcend this dispute, to establish a bottom-line objective: freeing Jews from Communist tyranny. At the end of the day, that was shared by everyone from Los Angeles to Washington to Jerusalem.

So far, Iranian Americans have been unable to establish a similar bottom line. The generation exiled by the revolution is hopelessly trapped by a politics of nostalgia: Fierce debates still rage among old-school leftists and liberals, monarchists, secular-nationalists, and reformists. Far too much energy is spent settling old scores rather than focusing on the threat at hand: theocratic misrule.

But, above all, it is the ruthlessness of the regime in crushing dissent that has driven many Iranian exiles to abandon politics altogether or else to seek comfort in yesterday’s imagined utopias. “What we’re seeing among the Iranian-American opposition is a reflection of the weakness of the Iranian opposition in general,” Hadi Ghaemi, who heads the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, told me. “That weakness can be attributed to the brutal repression inside and campaign of assassinations abroad, which has deprived the opposition of an effective leadership.”

Overcoming these challenges will no doubt take time and the emergence of a new generation of Iranian Americans comfortable with the language and spirit of American activism. Time, however, is something Iranians do not have. As the Iranian regime becomes ever more repressive at home and threatens to spark a regional war, the Iranian diaspora in the United States needs to get organized.

Sohrab Ahmari is the assistant books editor at The Wall Street Journal and co-editor of Arab Spring Dreams, an anthology of essays by young Mideast reformers.

Sohrab Ahmari is the assistant books editor at The Wall Street Journal and co-editor of Arab Spring Dreams, an anthology of essays by young Mideast reformers.