More than 200,000 people packed the National Mall Sunday to demonstrate support for Soviet Jewry, in the largest Jewish rally ever held in Washington.
Jews and non-Jews, from throughout the United States and Canada, as well as Israel and other countries, urged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to allow all Jews who wish to leave the Soviet Union to emigrate.
The demonstration came just 24 hours before Gorbachev was due to arrive in Washington for a two-day summit with President Reagan.
“The human rights issue is now a permanent part of the U.S.-Soviet agenda,” Vice President George Bush declared at the rally, which opened with the sounding of the shofar and Pearl Bailey singing “Let My People Go.”
Human rights “will be high on the agenda for the summit,” Bush promised. “I will personally raise it with Mr. Gorbachev. I will not be satisfied until the promise of Helsinki is a reality.”
Bush like other speakers pointed to Gorbachev’s policy of “glasnost” (openness). “But openness begins at the border,” he said. “Let’s see not five or six or 10 or 20 refuseniks released at a time, but thousands, tens of thousands — all those who want to go.”
Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.) also stressed that “glasnost may be all the rage in the media, but freedom is still the real issue” that ties together all of the other issues including arms control.
A LONG WAITING LIST
This view was echoed by House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas), who said that openness includes “the open door. We rejoice that the number of those permitted to leave has increased over this year over the very low level of 1986. We note that the need is great and the list is unbelievably long.”
Morris Abram, chairman of both the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, also stressed that glasnost has not applied to Jews.
“We want to believe that the release of highly visible refuseniks is not a publicity stunt, but we observe that in 1979 (Soviet leader Leonid) Brezhnev released six times as many Jews as Gorbachev in 1987,” Abram said.
Many speakers noted that the Washington Mobilization was taking place 10 days before Chanukah. Israeli Ambassador Moshe Arad called the Soviet Jews fighting for emigration “modern day Maccabees.”
Recently released refuseniks, such as Natan Sharansky, Vladimir Slepak, Yuli Edelshtein, Ida Nudel, Mikhail Kholmiansky and Felix Abramovich, lit candles on a giant menorah.
Sharansky stressed that the issue is not whether Reagan is strong enough to force Gorbachev to change policies or whether Gorbachev will be willing to allow emigration.
“It is we, it is our struggle which makes governments in the free world strong,” he said. “It is our struggle which can make the Soviet government willing to open the gates of the Soviet Union.”
Sharansky stressed the need to continue the effort, noting that if Soviet Jews are not free, then all Jews are not free.
WHO’S WHO OF ORGANIZED JEWRY
The demonstrators included a virtual who’s who of organized Jewry. But the backbone of the demonstration was ordinary Jews, many carrying banners urging freedom for Soviet Jewry, as well as signs designating their local synagogues.
One prominent Jewish official noted that this was the first time that every Jewish organization had cooperated in a single effort.
Pamela Cohen, president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, declared that “the Jewish people is a diverse people… Let all those who would oppress us know that there are issues on which we stand as one.”
Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, honorary chairman of the Summit Task Force, which organized the demonstration, said it took 20 years to bring about such a large gathering.
‘NOT SILENT TODAY’
“It is now clear that had there been such a large demonstration of Jews and human solidarity of concern in 1942, 1943 and 1944, millions of Jews would have been saved,” said Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor. “But too many were silent then. We are not silent today.”
The distinguished novelist added that “some Jews are more famous than others, but all are equally worthy of redemption.”
While Abram and others praised the “persistence” of the United States in pressing the Soviet Jewry issue, Yosef Mendelevich, a former prisoner of Zion, criticized the Reagan administration for arranging a meeting for Gorbachev with 60 American business leaders.
“We Soviet Jews Soviet Jews are outraged,” Mendelevich declared. “The Soviets will get trade, loans, goods for nothing.”
He urged “no trade, no aid. Until 60,000 each year will emigrate, each dollar sent to Russia is stamped with tears of Soviet Jewry.”
100 PLAN TO FAST
It was announced at the rally that some 100 Jews throughout the Soviet Union plan to fast during the summit. Many speakers expressed outrage that Jews demonstrating in Moscow earlier in the day had been arrested.
“That’s not glasnost, that’s Joe Stalin,” New York City Mayor Edward Koch declared.
The rally reminded many of the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s. Mary Travers and Peter Yarow of the group Peter, Paul and Mary sang freedom songs in Hebrew, as well as the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” as the crowd joined in.
In addition to Bush and Dole, other presidential candidates who appeared included Sen. Albert Gore (D-Tenn.), Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State Alexander Haig.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.