Dreaming the Impossible Dream
AJC Executive Director
December 27, 2009
As 2009 reaches an end, pause for a moment to reflect on 1989, just twenty years ago.
Historical anniversaries are important in their own right. After all, life didn't start today. It matters how we got to this point.
Moreover, historical reflection provides perspective – and, in the case of 1989, inspiration. Heaven knows, in our messy world, we need all the inspiration we can get.
The year 1989 had global significance. It doomed the Soviet empire, ushering in a revolution that liberated millions of people, transformed the face of Europe, and brought the Cold War to an end.
Soviet President Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika were introduced in 1986, and the Soviet leader announced a pullback of tens of thousands of Soviet troops from Central Europe in late 1988. Yet, as 1989 rolled around, few Western leaders could anticipate the historic events just around the corner.
Indeed, President George H.W. Bush, inaugurated in January 1989, couldn't then see past his innate caution and suspicion. And his top national security aide, General Brent Scowcroft, commented that month, "I think the Cold War is not over", and, later, "Gorbachev is potentially more dangerous than his predecessors."
To be fair, for those immersed in postwar East-West issues, it was nearly impossible to imagine a Soviet leader dismantling the house that Lenin and Stalin built. Gorbachev, then, must have been up to a KGB-inspired trick, a sleight-of-hand to deceive the West.
In January 1989, the Warsaw Pact was still in place. Todor Zhivkov was in power in Sofia, Milos Jakes in Prague, Erich Honecker in East Berlin, Karoly Grosz in Budapest, Wojciech Jaruzelski in Warsaw, and Nicolae Ceaucescu in Bucharest. The Berlin Wall stood as the symbol of Europe's division and the Soviet bloc's fear of freedom of movement. And the repressive power of secret services seemed unquestioned.
One year later, the Warsaw Pact was sounding its death knell, the leaders had all been ousted (with Jaruzelski, stripped of most of his authority, holding one post till the next year), the Berlin Wall had been toppled, the secret services were on the run, Bush and Gorbachev declared an end to the Cold War, and an era of post-Communism had begun.
Above all, this was a tribute to those on the ground, who, at great risk to themselves, refused to yield to the power of the state.
Individuals like Lech Walesa, Anna Walentynowcyz, Adam Michnik, Jaccek Kuron, and Bronislaw Geremek in Poland, and Vaclav Havel, Jiri Dienstbier, and Rita Klimova in Czechoslovakia. Groups like Solidarity, KOR, Charter 77, Civic Forum, Danube Circle, Helsinki monitoring committees, and others.
These were men and women of steely moral commitment and unusual physical courage.
Some, like Adam Michnik of Poland, as I learned first-hand, had the chance to find safety in the West, but instead chose to stay and fight.
They and other human rights activists endured intimidation, humiliation, surveillance, arrest, torture, and deprivation to stand up to totalitarianism. Without their immense sacrifices, the history of 1989 might have been quite different.
The year 1989 also changed the course of Jewish history.
Until then, other than Romania, none of the Warsaw Pact countries had had diplomatic ties with Israel after 1967. These countries provided weapons and training to Israel's sworn enemies in the region. They offered support and sanctuary to Middle East terror groups targeting Israel and Jews around the world.
The satellite countries supported the Soviet-initiated campaign in the UN to delegitimize Israel and brand Zionism a form of racism. With few exceptions, it could be quite dangerous, especially for younger people, to identify as a Jew anywhere in Soviet-occupied space. It was almost impossible to study Hebrew and practice Judaism. Fear of state-sponsored anti-Semitism was widespread. And world Jewry had precious few opportunities to interact with local Jewish communities, such as they were.
Twenty years later, the picture looks radically different. No, it's not perfect. There are still troubling pockets of anti-Semitism and, in some places, glorification of dubious wartime figures.
That said, Israel now enjoys robust diplomatic ties with all the countries of the region. Even more, there are close strategic partnerships with several.
In meetings of the EU, Central European leaders regularly speak out in favor of Israel and challenge the pro-Palestinian tendencies of some other member countries. For instance, the Bulgarian foreign minister recently said that his country would not support a Swedish effort to name East Jerusalem as the capital of a new Palestinian state, which would have undermined efforts to restart negotiations.
The Czech Republic and Poland were among the ten countries that stayed away from the Durban Review Conference earlier this year.
At the UN, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia have all shown strong support for Israel.
Jewish communities have re-emerged. To be sure, they're a mere shadow of their former selves, having endured the worst that the 20th century had to offer, but they are planning for the future and have the support of world Jewry.
Anti-Semitism hasn't completely disappeared, any more than it has in other European countries. But governments today stand against it, not for it, and no one lives in fear of a repeat of the climate of the Slansky trials of the 1950s in Czechoslovakia or the 1968 Polish campaign against "Zionists" – by which they meant Jews.
Whereas the history of the Holocaust was suppressed during the Communist period, it is now back on the table. It is often painful, and at times contentious, but there is a serious effort on the part of many to grapple with what once was, what was lost, who collaborated with the Nazis, and how to deal, if very belatedly, with the aftermath.
Just one example. The Nazi death camp at Belzec, in southeastern Poland, was in operation for less than a year, during which approximately 500,000 Jews were murdered. In the decades after the war, other than a flimsy and inadequate sign, there was no effort to demarcate, protect, or memorialize the area. That became possible in the post-Communist era. In 2004, the Polish government and AJC dedicated the site, after years of fruitful cooperation.
That cooperation was part of a larger effort by AJC, which took off in the late 1980s, to engage with the democratic forces of Central Europe.
While too many in the Jewish world were looking only in the rear-view mirror, consumed by painful history, the opportunities were beckoning. We seized them. In doing so, we supported German unification, NATO enlargement, and EU expansion. We were especially gratified when Czech President Vaclav Havel thanked AJC at a White House state dinner for supporting democratic forces in the region.
The overriding lesson of 1989 is the power of the human spirit. Forces behind the Iron Curtain that once seemed invincible were toppled like a house of cards when Moscow relaxed its grip, thanks to the forward-looking vision of Gorbachev, supported by his closest advisers Alexander Yakovlev and Eduard Shevardnadze. Freedom no longer seemed quite so distant to those heroic figures on the ground who never stopped believing -- and to those on the outside, from President Ronald Reagan to Pope John Paul II, who stood with them.
Individuals can make the difference, at least those who have the audacity to dream and the capacity to persevere. And with sustained support for their principled efforts, the impossible becomes possible.
Perhaps when the history of the next twenty years is written, it will include, for instance, a chapter on an Iran freed by courageous citizens from the suffocating grip of the mullahs, eager to embrace full democracy and human rights, and committed to diplomatic ties with the United States and Israel.
Sound far-fetched? Perhaps, but surely no more so than it once was to imagine the end of the Soviet empire, the Berlin Wall, and the Warsaw Pact.
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