Reminiscing on the golden days of Jewish American activism, two heroes of the Soviet Jewry movement took to the stage at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in its main plenary session on Monday.
Natan Sharansky, the former refusnik who is now head of the Jewish Agency for Israel and Nobel peace prize laureate Eli Wiesel, shared the stage as the Jewish community marked the 25th anniversary of the 1987 March on Washington, a seminal moment in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry and a high point in Jewish mobilization for a national cause.
The idea for the march on Washington, planned to coincide with a meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, came from both sides of the Iron Curtain, with activists on both ends sharing the vision of a massive call for opening immigration doors to Soviet Jews. Sharansky was released from the Russian prison several months before the December 6 protest, which brought more than 250,000 Jewish activists to the nation’s capital.
“We showed how strong we are as a people,” Sharansky said. “When we feel this power, as one people and one family, we can change the world.”
Eli Wiesel had first learned on the plight of Russian Jewry in a 1975 trip to the Soviet Union, first of many he made as he became more active in raising the cause of Soviet Jews.
Wiesel spoke of the Jewish enthusiasm he had met in Russia, with members of the community, who were not allowed to practice their religion, stuffing notes with their names into his pockets, asking not to be forgotten. The success of the movement, which led eventually to the opening of immigration gates, said Wiesel, “proves that everything is possible if you really want it.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.