I SAW THE DOCUMENTARY "REFUSENIK" ABOUT TEN DAYS AGO, and it provoked a lot of thoughts about what happens when people fight for what's right.
The film chronicles the plight of Jews who tried to free themselves from the persecution of the Soviet Union and of the people -- mostly in the United States -- who tried to help them. It shows how what ultimately became a celebrated global movement for human rights started with only a few rather passionate and determined people inside and outside the U.S.S.R.
The movement was powered by a relatively small (as compared to the vast numbers in the U.S.S.R. overall) group of Jews, who took enormous personal risks by daring to apply for exit visas from their country. The subsequent refusal (thus the moniker "refusenik") by the Soviet authorities ensured these applicants and their families would lose their jobs, be monitored and harassed constantly by the KGB, committed to psychiatric hospitals and/or exiled to remote, inhospitable locales such as Siberia.
Starting in the early 1960s, small groups of vocal activist students began to publicize the cause of Soviet Jews, later capturing more widespread attention first from what the film repeatedly refers to as the "establishment" of the Jewish community and then leaders and grassroots from many non-Jewish backgrounds.
With the benefit of some rather remarkable film footage from the time and of more recent interviews (with many of the most famous refuseniks such as Natan and Avital Sharansky, Vitali Rubin, Vladimir and Maria Slepak, and Ephraim Kholmyansky, as well as with figures such as Eli Wiesel, Mikhail Gorbachev, former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz), we hear the captives and their supporters in the West talk about some of the brazen efforts to outwit the KGB and to inflict pain on the Soviet government. Like survivors and rescuers during the Holocaust, the refuseniks leave you wondering whether you could ever endure what they did if you had faced the same harsh choices.
For so many years, their efforts appeared rather like a flea stepping on the toe of an elephant. Little by little, as the movement for Soviet Jewry grew around the world and the heroic refuseniks themselves loomed larger as symbols of Soviet oppression, the Soviets started to relent. The elephant yielded. In the 1970s, the Soviets allowed the incremental release of a few small groups of Jews and some higher-profile refuseniks, whose celebrity embarrassed the regime. Eventually, as the Soviet system began to crumble, hundreds of thousands eventually left for refuge elsewhere.
Second to the extraordinary and inspiring heroics of the refuseniks themselves, what moved me also was the Soviet Jewry movement itself, which was committed not to let the refuseniks' struggles be forgotten. The movement drew on people far beyond the Jewish community -- civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King and Bayard Rustin, leading Christian clergy, sympathetic public commentators and the political leadership of many nations, especially my own. They created a juggernaut that put the refuseniks' plight high on the list of U.S. foreign policy priorities and on the agendas of summits between American and Soviet Presidents.
Learning about this (again, as I had some involvement with it in the '80s), I was struck that nearly no one, certainly no one thoughtful and influential in American political life, questioned this massive mobilization by the American Jewish community in the way many do the efforts today of pro-Israel activists.
Why is that? I know this might sound willfully ignorant to those who have criticized Israel's actions against Palestinians, but tell me, please, how Israel's struggle to defend itself from terrorism and possibly all-out destruction is any less just a cause than that of Jews trying to throw off the yoke of repression in the U.S.S.R.?
How is it that a well-organized, passionate community of pro-Israel activists is accused -- even by otherwise respected political analysts -- of subverting the U.S. foreign interests, when there was no similar opposition to the Soviet Jewry movement some 20 or 30 years ago (at least not as much as I think there was)?
Part of the answer, of course, is that the cause of Soviet Jewry served the cause of anti-Communism, which enjoyed broad-based support in the U.S. And the Rooskies were the villains and the poor suffering Jews were the victims; it was a simple frame.
To most, the Arab-Israeli conflict looks far more complicated -- and in many ways it is, not least because the Israelis are well armed, and, notwithstanding horrific acts of terror against Israelis, they don't always appear to be the victims. And to some, the very notion of Zionism -- of Jews having their own state -- is illegitimate.
What's most disturbing about all that is a willful ignorance to see that the cause of peace and prosperity for Israel -- and, yes, for non-Israelis, too -- is as just as the cause for Soviet Jewry, or for any oppressed group around the world. No people should be forced to endure a 60-year siege, to be subjected to murderous attacks on its streets and to be constantly targeted for extinction, as Mssrs. Ahmadinejad, Nasrallah, Meshal and others like them would have it.
Still there are those who question pro-Israel activism. They almost invariably assume that the goal of U.S. support for Israel is the result of some immoral deal that lawmakers cut for political expedience. Did it ever occur to them that political leaders believe in U.S. support for Israel because they see it as a just cause?
I'm not defining "U.S. support for Israel" as unconditional support for any Israeli policy, no matter how misguided. Israel, like any grown-up, modern state is not perfect. And, as I have argued here several times before, it is faced with two bad choices -- on the one hand, the insecurity that comes with a policy of restraint, and the opprobrium that comes with taking firm, decisive action to defend itself.
Still, tell me what is unjust about sticking by a nation that shares what we believe are enlightened values, that is an agent of intellectual, human and cultural progress in the world and that is the object of so much irrational and vitriolic hatred. Is it that some are uncomfortable with the prospect of Jewish power -- either in the form of a well-organized community of advocates or in the form of a state capable of protecting itself?
What's this really all about?