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.
So what was the point of this hearing? It was hard to tell at first. The accounts by the family members were harrowing.
The wife of the imprisoned Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng described his numerous disappearances by the police over the past few years, retribution for his defense of Falun Gong and Christian dissidents. She described in detail one incident in 2007 after her husband wrote a letter to Congress protesting the Chinese government’s abuses in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics.
“On the same day the letter appeared, he was brought to a dark room; the police took off all his clothes and beat him, using electrical cords to beat him all over his body, including his private parts,” said Geng He, Gao’s wife. “And they used cigarette butts to target his eyes. He lost consciousness. There were scars all over his body because of the torture. The police told him, ‘If we want to we could make you disappear anytime.’”
The mother of Do Thi Minh Hanh, a Vietnamese labor activist in jail for the past two years, began weeping while recounting how her daughter has breast cancer. She pleaded for the “intervention” of the men in front of her to get her released from her gulag.
I know there are limitations to Congress’s ability to affect foreign policy. It’s the executive’s role, and the Obama administration has shown very little stomach for championing human rights, whether to protect Syrians or to protest on behalf of Chinese dissidents. But what I heard from the congressmen astounded me. In response to this testimony, they basically threw up their hands.
“This place is downstream from what is going on,” Wolf explained to the still sniffling families. “If you think that Congress and the administration will save you, you are mistaken.”
Smith, who was seated next to Wolf, reading glasses perched at the edge of his nose, drove the point in deeper.
“We’re the legislative branch,” he said. “We are not the face of American foreign policy. That is an executive branch function. We write the laws, we can put money or not put money in certain accounts, but when it comes to the interface with certain governments, we can be advocates, and we are. but it is the White House, it is the diplomats, who carry the burden or drop that burden for the dissidents.”
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 Forward’s Opinion Editor. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Contact Gal Beckerman at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @galbeckerman