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

(page 3 of 3)

The best the congressmen could offer was when Wolf, just after the Vietnamese mother started crying, looked out into the audience and asked if there was anyone present from the administration. When one young woman sheepishly raised her hand and said she worked at the state department, he scolded her: “Have you been observing all of this? Make sure you record these names so you share it with the secretary.”

Wolf genuinely seemed to care about the stories of misery that were being recounted. But confessing his inability to actually do anything for these prisoners made it all seem like political theater, a chance to make a point about the ineffectiveness of President Obama’s foreign policy. Smith was even more directly political. Turning to Gao’s wife, he complained that he had written a letter to the administration, asking that it meet with her and other relatives of Chinese dissidents. “We haven’t even gotten a response from the White House,” Smith said. “That’s unconscionable to me.” Obama, he said, was acting with “callous indifference” that “enabled dictatorship.” This might be true, but it sure didn’t help the mother worried about her daughter’s breast cancer.

Sharansky talked briefly about how his own travails related to these political prisoners. And I gave a speech about what ethnic communities can learn from the Soviet Jewry movement about how to mobilize and inspire wider interest in what might seem like parochial causes. It fed right into Wolf’s point about the need for activism to happen outside Congress from the ground up.

I wish I had said something different. I wish I had told the congressman that he had misread my book if he thought its message was that there was no role for lawmakers to play when it came to human rights beyond holding hearings in front of a sole C-SPAN camera. After all, one of the great heroes of the Soviet Jewry movement was Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, who did not wait for American Jews to galvanize the issue. He faced all kinds of resistance from Jewish leaders to his idea of making America’s trade relationship with the Soviet Union contingent on its human rights record — what became the Jackson-Vanik amendment. He had to cajole and yell and twist arms like an LBJ. It was largely through this pressure, from the top down, that a constituency eventually formed and became the united front that convinced the rest of Congress to support the amendment.

That was what I learned from my book about how revolutionary policy gets made by those in Congress. They have to extend themselves beyond the House and Senate and try to build a power base in support of a cause, especially when the president — like Richard Nixon then, and Obama now — is resistant to taking up causes.

My day in Congress ended with me wandering around the hallowed halls for a few more hours. I walked into the gallery of the House, which wasn’t in session anymore, and sat down. I was alone in the chamber. And even then the room didn’t feel all that big. I thought about something curious that had happened during the hearing: An aide whispered in Wolf’s ear, and suddenly the congressman announced that a number of parents of Vietnamese political prisoners had shown up on their own and were in the audience. Wolf asked them to stand up and identify themselves. One by one, three fathers stood quietly, and each said his child’s name, overwhelmed, it seemed to me, by his few seconds in the spotlight. Wolf called over to the person from the state department: “Jot down their names, okay?”

I’m sure they were expecting more than that.

Gal Beckerman is the opinion editor of the Forward. Contact him at beckerman@forward.com or on Twitter, @galbeckerman


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!
  • 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?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • 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.