NEW YORK (Apr. 1)
After more than two decades of activism on behalf of Soviet Jews, the rallying cry of "Let My People Go" was changed to "Let My People Fly" and "Bring My People Home."
It was the first Solidarity Sunday amid glasnost.
Official police estimates of 127,000 people–although more realistic figures put the number at a fraction of that — gathered at the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza opposite the United Nations on Sunday for what was called this year an emergency "rally of response."
Although the U.N. setting, the Israeli songs, the colorful placards and the refusenik speakers seemed to evoke memories of past Solidarity Sundays, the tone and the feeling of this year’s event was markedly different.
"We say to Mikhail Gorbachev, we have nothing against you or against the Soviet Union," said Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, chairman of the Greater New York Coalition for Soviet Jewry, which organized the rally. "But we demand that you crush the anti-Semitic savages in your country."
The agenda of the rally was threefold: to protest recent manifestations of grass-roots Soviet anti-Semitism; to challenge mounting Arab pressure on the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries to stop the flow of Soviet Jewish emigration; and to urge continued financing of the resettlement of Soviet Jews in Israel.
The rally was noticeably calmer than in past years. With Soviet Jewish emigration figures for 1989 topping 70,000 — the largest annual number of Jews to leave the Soviet Union in history — the need to push for freedom of emigration may have seemed to many less urgent.
"We had to walk a fine line," admitted Zeesy Schnur, executive director of the Coalition. "We had to say to the Soviets: ‘Yes, you’ve been doing a fine job regarding emigration,’ and yet get our concerns about anti-Semitism, direct flights and Arab terrorism across."
For the Coalition, an umbrella organization of 85 metropolitan area organizations, the rally would be either boom or bust.
Having called off the rally for the last two years in an effort to foster fledgling Soviet efforts to open its doors, organizers of the rally were nervous that the spark that had kept over 100,000 protesters coming to New York every year might not reignite.
They were also worried about the strong possibility of rain and cold weather that threatened to dampen the proceedings.
But with almost 200 busloads of protesters from schools unloading by midday Sunday, breaking the record of 180 in past years, the Coalition’s fears were proven unfounded.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, chairman of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, criticized American leaders. "It is the U.S. government that has not pressured the USSR. We demand direct flights now!" he screamed into a megaphone in a counterdemonstration after the rally.
NERVOUS OVER WASHINGTON REACTION
Jewish leaders were reportedly nervous about the reception the rally would have in Washington. "There were some individual leaders in the Coalition who had serious misgivings about the rally," admitted Lookstein.
"A lot of people in the organized Jewish community feel this rally is wrong. They didn’t want to rock the boat," Lookstein said.
City Councilman Noach Dear was one of those people. "Jews are getting out finally," he said in an interview Friday. "We applaud the efforts of the Soviet Union and the things that have been happening. It’s not government-sponsored anti-Semitism.
"The rally sends a bad message. And it may offend Soviet leaders and come in the way of negotiations."
Only one member of the Bush administration addressed the rally, although both Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle sent statements of support.
Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Richard Schifter read the presidential statement, calling Soviet anti-Semitism an "odious scourge," and reprimanding terrorist groups who impede "transit as well as direct flights to Israel."
But Shifter refused to comment on the possibility of American-sponsored direct flights from Moscow to Ben-Gurion Airport.
Also speaking at the rally were Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, Cardinal John O’Connor, Natan Sharansky, State Attorney General Robert Abrams, Mayor David Dinkins, Israel’s Consul General Uriel Savir, former Mayor Edward Koch and recently-released Soviet refuseniks Vladimir and Karmela Raiz.
Reactions to the rally were varied. Organizers sitting at the podium, viewing the vast masses of protesters thronging in the plaza, seemed pleased with the turnout.
But Weiss as well as Jewish Defense Organization leader Mordechai Levy were not satisfied. Both led counterdemonstrations after the rally.
Demanding that the United States airlift Soviet Jews out of the Soviet Union and that the Jackson-Vanik amendment not be waived until there are direct flights, Weiss led a sit-in protest at the U.S. mission to the U.N., in which he and 48 others blocked traffic and were later arrested.
(JTA intern Adam Dickter contributed to this report.)