The Power of Jewish Activism: 1987 to 2023
On November 14th, 2023, standing shoulder to shoulder with my fellow American Jews, I partook in history. Holding an American and Israeli flag in each of my hands, I felt pride in my identity as an American Jew and was deeply aware of what a privilege it was to do so. I could not help but think of previous moments in American Jewish history in which we filled the National Mall. One of which, on December 6th, 1987, has intense personal significance. Often called Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jewry, that day was the culmination of years of work.
The struggle to free Jews from the Soviet Union was a broad activist movement that captured the energy and passion of young Jewish Americans from the mid-1960s until the collapse of the USSR in 1991. One of the most successful protest movements in history, it achieved tangible American policy change through the Jackson-Vanik amendment of the early 1970s. The amendment tied trade credit with Soviet Jewish emigration, and let the Communist government know that America was serious about supporting Soviet Jews. In “When They Come for Us We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” Gal Beckerman argues that the movement even helped hasten the fall of the Soviet Union. As the daughter of Russian-speaking Jews who found refuge in America after the collapse of the USSR, that history was at the forefront of my mind throughout the day.
There are moments in history that reverberate in our present, the echoes of which we cannot shake off. With my feet on the hallowed ground of the National Mall — a patch of land that has cradled the American hope for a brighter future — I listened to Natan Sharansky address the 290 thousand souls gathered. When I heard his familiarly accented voice, I was ready to cry because he reminded me of where I come from. He reminded me that I was able to stand where I stood because of the American Jews who marched on the National Mall on December 6th, 1987 to free my family. He reminded me that he was able to stand on that podium in 1987 and 2023 because of our collective power.
Throughout the day, as I heard various smatterings of Russian, I felt so proud that we showed up. As a community that directly benefited from Jewish activism, we realized that we have the privilege to stand in the American capital in support for our brothers and sisters in Israel.
In all honesty, there were moments on November 14th when I felt cynical about what we were actually accomplishing. Are we really going to change the outcome of this war? Does our presence here actually matter? I do not have a satisfying answer to those questions, but I do know that we made history, and I do know that the history that our parents and grandparents made on December 6th changed the fate of my family. We do not know what sort of echoes November 14th will have, but we must know that it will echo, and others will hear it.
Photo Caption: On November 14th, 2023, standing shoulder to shoulder with my fellow American Jews, I partook in history.
Photo Credit: Tali Pinsker