On a cold December 6, 1987, 250,000 Jewish freedom advocates gathered peacefully on the National Mall in Washington strongly urging the Kremlin to allow the persecuted and oppressed Soviet Jewry to go free and leave the USSR in the name of Glasnost (openness). This rally set the path for human rights advocacy as a major focal point for subsequent international diplomatic affairs, making this a very special and significant point in history we should all remember on this day marking its 30 year anniversary we call Freedom Sunday.
The Jewish support rally took place only 6 months after US President Ronald Reagan delivered the famous “Tear Down This Wall!” speech to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in West Berlin on June 12, 1987. This December protest was timely planned since the next day President Gorbachev was due to meet with President Reagan for his first official US visit since taking office. Needless to say, those public outcries were heard!
The State of Jewry in the Soviet Union
These Soviet Jews were hated and treated as if they were traitors. Prior to 1987, very few Jews were allowed to escape from the confines of the Soviet Union. A major part of the 1975 Helsinki Accords emphasized “human rights, including freedom of emigration and reunification of families divided by international borders, cultural exchanges and freedom of the press.” From all those who applied for exit visas in the 1960’s and 1970’s, only about 25 percent were granted permission to emigrate and return to their families in the Jewish “homeland of Israel,” while those who were denied were labeled as Refuseniks (refused the right to emigrate) and led a life of persecution and oppression in the anti-Semitic Soviet Union.
These Soviet Jews were hated and treated as if they were traitors. They had a very difficult time finding jobs, getting accepted into university programs, and were denied many other opportunities to live by the average Soviet standard of living (which was already a difficult struggle).
Food was scarce for all Soviets and living conditions were harsh across the land. They were not wanted or accepted by the Soviets, yet at the same time, they were forbidden to leave. They had to hide being Jewish and many prayed in closets and basements in secrecy. Worst of all, the Chernobyl disaster proved how deceitful the authoritarian Soviet government was and could not be trusted.
The Lucky Ones Escaped
The Soviet Jews lucky enough to be granted exit visas didn’t all go to Israel and were called “Dropouts.” Many of these refugees managed to find an American sponsor thanks to America’s Freedom of Choice initiative and with the help of organizations such as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). They worked hard to assimilate, learn English, and find gainful employment.
It’s extraordinary what we as a human race can accomplish when we ban together on moral grounds in the name of freedom. Many were entrepreneurial and started small businesses and successfully managed to live the American Dream! However, sadly, the majority of Soviet Jews remained stuck in the Soviet Union, suffering in the gulags (forced labor camps), watched closely by the KGB, and ostracized by their own collectivist society. They prayed the American Jews would continue to fight for their escape from the clutches of the Soviet regime.
The next two years proved to be tumultuous as international political pressure and government bureaucracy led to a backlog of Soviet Jews stuck in limbo in the Vienna-Rome pipeline; waiting for visa approvals. The American Jewish population came together from the left and right, Democrat and Republican, against the horrors of communism and advocated as one for the release of Soviet Jews as well as for their right to choose to come to the United States. These human rights advocates learned to push back until finally the gates were opened in 1989 and over a million Soviet Jews flooded out of the USSR. Initially, most settled in Israel. But over the next few years, more and more Jews (up to 90 percent) wanted to settle in the United States as stories of economic opportunities and prosperity were becoming widespread.
It’s extraordinary what we as a human race can accomplish when we ban together on moral grounds in the name of freedom. Freedom allows people to live beyond mere existence. When basic necessities are met, we have the opportunity to be creative and peacefully exchange and cooperate with one another which leads to innovation and progress. It’s incredible that Jews only make up 0.2 percent of the world’s population, yet they represent 22.5 percent of Nobel laureates. And it’s undeniable that we wouldn’t be where we are today without the heroism displayed 30 years ago that led to victory for Jews and victory for all humanity.