Disillusioned on Capitol Hill

Learning Firsthand How Little Congress Cares for Human Rights

Kurt Hoffman/Getty Images

By Gal Beckerman

Published February 03, 2014, issue of February 07, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

I almost marked the email as spam. When it arrived in my inbox, the subject head had that distinctive indistinctness of junk mail: “Invitation To Testify Before Congress….” Me? Right.

But then I clicked on it anyway. And Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia’s office was indeed asking me if I would give witness to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, which he chaired. The congressman had just finished reading my book — a history of the Soviet Jewry movement — and wanted to know if I would talk about the movement’s lessons for political dissidents today. I was going to Washington.

Before I describe the disillusionment that quickly set in as I shifted uncomfortably before the microphone and bright lights, I should say that just taking the train to Union Station, walking up the hill toward Congress and down its marbled halls, was a revelation for me. I’m the son of immigrants who always felt that the place where power happens in this country was very far away from me. I didn’t even apply to Ivy League schools, because they seemed the exclusive domain of children whose parents and grandparents had actually gone to those same schools.

Maybe I’d been naive, but Congress in person just seemed so human-sized. I suppose this helps explain how fallible it can be. But it suddenly seemed that much more extraordinary for its rare moments of transcendence, when good things actually do get done. It made me that much more eager to see close-up how a largely unwelcome issue — human rights — is treated today, given our current national mood of isolation.

At the witness table with me that morning was Natan Sharansky, the famous political prisoner from the Soviet Jewry movement — and the reason that photographers were crouched on the floor in front of us — as well as family members of three very not-famous current political prisoners from China, Bahrain and Vietnam. In front of us was a gallery where House members of the commission, of which there are nearly 100, are supposed to sit. It was almost completely empty.

The only congressmen there were the two chairmen: Wolf, a Republican, and his Democratic counterpart, James McGovern of Massachusetts, along with Chris Smith, a Republican of New Jersey, best known as a staunch social conservative opposed to abortion and stem cell research. On the many empty seats behind them, staffers had propped up large photos of political prisoners and one of Sharansky, just after his release, wearing a gigantic paisley tie and shaking Ronald Reagan’s hand.


Video streaming by Ustream


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.