February 22, 2022
For many years, David Harris was active in one of the most successful human rights campaigns in modern history, the Soviet Jewry movement, where he served as the national coordinator for Freedom Sunday, the 1987 demonstration in Washington, D.C. that drew over 250,000 participants, the largest Jewish gathering in American history. He was also the only Russian-speaking American activist who had unique vantage points from Moscow, Leningrad, Vienna, Rome, Washington, New York, and Jerusalem, as nearly two million people emigrated from the former Soviet Union. Join us for this can’t-miss conversation on the Soviet Jewry campaign as a case study for effective advocacy with AJC CEO David Harris.
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CLAIRE BAILEY: Good day. Welcome to Advocacy Anywhere, powered by American Jewish Committee. Advocacy Anywhere is AJC's digital platform that enables you to engage with AJC's global expertise, content, and advocacy from wherever you are. Today, we're delighted to bring you the second program in AJC's six-part series, titled “A Life in the Trenches, an Oral History with AJC CEO David Harris.” Today, David, in conversation with AJC Chief of Staff to the CEO, Jillian Laskowitz, will share his experiences as a tireless advocate for the Soviet Jewry Movement. A lifelong Jewish activist, David has led AJC since 1990 and has been referred to by the late Israeli president Shimon Peres as the “foreign minister of the Jewish people.” He's been honored more than 20 times by foreign governments for his international work, making him the most decorated American Jewish organizational leader in U.S. history. After we hear from David and Jillian, time permitting, we will take your questions. You may email your question to email@example.com, questions is plural, or you can use the Q&A feature in Zoom. Jillian, the floor is yours.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Thank you so much, Claire. Welcome back to everyone for session two of this series with David Harris. As mentioned, today, we're focusing on the Soviet Jewry Movement, which is quite relevant today with all eyes on Russia and Ukraine. As always, David, there's a lot to cover in one hour, so let's dive right in. Your Jewish career began with the Soviet Jewry Movement. Can you tell us where your interest began and what triggered it?
DAVID HARRIS: I'd like to find a way to slow down the clock, so we have even more time, because this is quite a story. My interest, Jillian, began, I suppose, with the fact that I grew up in a Russian speaking environment. My mother Nellie was born in Moscow, her parents Ida and Lova lived literally in the next apartment. We were an apartment 6B, they were in apartment 6C. I spent a lot of time with them as well. I heard Russian all the time between my mother and my grandparents. That was probably it. Everything flowed from the fact that they spoke Russian, they were strongly anti-communist, and this is what I learned from an early age.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: David, can you tell us about your first professional experience with Russian Jews? I believe you started off teaching English as a foreign language at the time. How was the experience for you?
DAVID HARRIS: Exactly. I was in New York. I had a full-time job after I did my graduate degree in the UK. I worked for AFS, the American Field Service, which was a very idealistic global organization that worked in the education space in educational exchanges. In the evening, mostly as a lark, perhaps to make a little extra money, I began teaching at a school here in New York, called the Cambridge School, to new immigrants and new refugees. I began first as a substitute teacher, and then after a few weeks, became a regular three nights a week for a couple of years. What I noticed, Jillian, in the classroom was I had students from all over the world, but there were several that appeared in each class who were from the Soviet Union. Not only did I feel a connection because they spoke Russian, I spoke Russian, they were Jewish, I was Jewish, but quite literally, I know it will sound a little corny, they looked very much like my family. I mean, the people I saw, my mother, my grandparents, my great grandparents, my cousins. I mean, we all lived in an Upper West Side shtetl between West 72nd and West 94th street, between Central Park and Riverside Drive. I knew almost all of my family, certainly those that lived in the United States. I could swear that the people in my classrooms at the Cambridge School all looked like my family and my family looked like them. I was very much drawn to them and during the intermissions I'd speak to them. I began to hear these stories about how they left the Soviet Union. Now, understand, at the time in 1972, '73, '74, meeting Soviet Jews who had just arrived in the United States, not who came in 1880 or 1890, or just before the first World War, was completely new and very unusual. That they had been able to get out, they had been able to come here. I was fascinated by their stories. For the two years that I was teaching at the Cambridge School in the evenings, I would just listen to these stories. Sometimes afterwards, we'd go out for a cup of coffee or a bite to eat, and I just couldn't get enough of their stories. Again, I am very much related to them, because my mother and her family had left a generation earlier. Again, my mother was born in Moscow. My maternal grandparents were born in Belarus, my grandfather in Minsk, my grandmother in Babruysk. This was very real to me. it felt very much like, as they say, in Hebrew, mishpacha, family.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Right. David, to continue the story, I know you were also selected for a U.S. Soviet exchange program to actually go to the Soviet Union. I know that was a very life changing and formative experience for you and your career. Can you take us through that experience and tell us why it was so life changing for you?
DAVID HARRIS: This was the era of what became known as detente, a French word, which described this new atmosphere in U.S.-Soviet relations. Actually, quite the opposite of what we're facing now in U.S.-Russian relations. This was an attempt to thaw the Cold War tension, and several exchange programs were introduced on a governmental level. This was one of those exchange programs. Six Americans were selected to go and live and work in the Soviet Union and teach. Six Soviets were invited to come to the United States and teach. I was one of the six.
I was interested in the effort. I, again, spoke Russian. I had had experience now for two years, teaching English as a foreign language. I was invited to teach in a school, first in Moscow, and then in Leningrad, now, again, renamed St. Petersburg. As you said, Jillian, this was literally a life changing experience. I mean, I went, not as an activist, although I was certainly interested in Soviet Jewry. I also, as an idealist who thought that I could make a small change in the Cold War environment and warm it up a bit. The more time I spent in first Moscow, then Leningrad though, the more Jewish I behaved, the more activist I became, the more aware of the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union I became, the angrier I became and it just kept going.
There were lots and lots of stories. I mean, there were regular visits to the synagogue in Moscow. At the time, there was maybe only one operating synagogue on Arkhipova Street. I would start going every Saturday morning, mostly to stand outside with the Jewish activists who came to kind of meet each other and to navigate around the KGB agents who were also there monitoring the situation. The most memorable of those synagogue visits for me was actually Simchat Torah, where I had been sort of told in advance, "Go, you'll be moved by what you see." I can still vividly recall leaving my school, school number 45, taking the metro, heading for Arkhipova Street.
Ironically, it was perpendicular to Bohdan Khmelnytsky Street. Khmelnytsky was a 17th century Ukrainian responsible for the deaths of thousands and thousands of Jews at the time, so there was a certain irony. I remember arriving at the intersection of Arkhipova and Khmelnytsky Street and turning the corner and looking down, because there was a gentle hill and literally seeing hundreds, if not thousands, of Jews congregating in the street for Simchat Torah, forming circles, in some cases, singing or dancing. I stood there for what seemed to me a couple of minutes, totally transfixed with tears in my eyes. I understood at that point that what I was seeing, which came what 50, 60 years after the Bolshevik Revolution, was a very powerful message that despite the effort of Lenin, and Stalin, and Khrushchev, and now Brezhnev, the Jews could not be defeated.
Then, I waited in the crowd, and though my mother was Russian, to them, I looked typically American. It was the clothes, it was the hair, it was the demeanor. I was just swept up in this extraordinary hour or two with the Jews of the Soviet Union who were not meant to be, who were meant to be targets of cultural genocide, of fear, of intimidation, and there they were on the streets. I also, in my school, number 45, it turns out, there were a number of Jewish students. One in particular, her name was Lyuba, if I recall, approached me in the hallway, very, very surreptitiously. As we crossed paths, she grabbed my hand and I felt a piece of paper in my hands. I clutched the note in my hand, and I went to the nearest bathroom, and went into one of the stalls, and I opened the note.
It said, "David Harris, I feel you are Jewish. If you are, my family are refuseniks, they've been denied permission to leave the USSR. Would you come and see us?" Now, she was taking a huge risk. She was 14 or 15 years old. I could have been someone else. I could have gone to the principal of the school and said, "I got this note. I don't know what it is. Explain it to me." But she gambled smartly, she was right. I went to visit her home, in turn, they introduced me to other refuseniks. I became more and more involved after school, not just in the synagogue, but in the homes of individual refuseniks. The same pattern then happened in Leningrad, in school number 185. I went to the synagogue. I met refuseniks. It was harder there, because the Jews in Moscow felt a little bit freer, maybe because the embassies were there, the journalists were there. And I have to give a shout out to the American embassy and to a number of journalists. I remember for example, Kevin Klose, who later became the head of National Public Radio. Journalists from major media outlets who took an interest in Soviet Jews, who took risks with their own career by reporting about and meeting with Soviet Jews. In Leningrad, the Jews were more endangered, because they had fewer points of contact.
At the end of Leningrad, I was sent back to Moscow, and I went to the synagogue one day in December. I'd already been there for three plus months. I went to the synagogue and a group of French Jews arrived on Shabbat morning and they wanted to meet refuseniks. When I was there, the French only spoke French, not Russian, or for that matter, Yiddish or little English. I spoke French. I became an interpreter for the French Jews wanting to meet the refuseniks. That apparently was a step too far for the surveillance teams of the KGB. That day in December, when I left the synagogue to return to my hotel, I'm being generous in describing it as a hotel, I had gotten about a block or two, and I was stopped by several uniformed agents who surrounded me, who questioned me, who threatened me, who told me to return to my hotel. I was being put under hotel arrest. I was not going to be sent to jail, but I was going to be kept in the hotel in my room. I was subsequently notified that I was going to be expelled from the Soviet Union. In mid-December 1974, against my will, I was put on a plane from Moscow to Helsinki, Finland, and I was sent out of the Soviet Union. I was frightened. I don't want to pretend otherwise, it's a scary experience. Very scary.
On the other hand, I felt, Jillian, that I had born witness for several months to the personal stories of many Soviet Jews. I had been in their homes. I had been with them at the synagogue. I had been with them elsewhere, in parks, where you felt you might be able to talk with less surveillance. I felt I had become a kind of messenger to the West, an eyewitness to an attempt to culturally destroy any last vestige of Jewish life in the Soviet Union. I felt I had to tell the story, number one, and number two, even more, I felt I had to do something to help them.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Thank you, David. Each time I hear you tell that story, it really paints such a vivid picture of not just what life was like in the Soviet Union during that time, but Jewish life, and just how dangerous it was. I've heard you talk about landing in Helsinki and the contrast between landing there and what life was like in the Soviet Union for Soviet Jews. I just know it strengthened your Jewish identity. What happened next, after you were in Helsinki, what did you do?
DAVID HARRIS: Well, I just have to backtrack for one moment, Jillian, prompted by something you just said. I don't really think it's possible to understand life in the Soviet Union from a distance, both in geography and in time. I didn't really understand it, until I went, even though I came from a family that had fled. To understand Soviet communism is to understand complete tyranny, complete control, an effort to dominate every aspect of life. People were afraid. People had no legal recourse. People had no NGOs in the Soviet Union that they could turn to for help. Jews in particular, who decided to break with the system and apply to leave, apply to emigrate, were taking their life into their hands. And not just their own, but their family's, including perhaps their elderly parents and their children. Everyone on this call, especially those who are younger, should understand the word immigration did not exist in the Soviet lexicon.
The, if I recall, 19 families from Soviet Georgia who wrote a joint letter to the United Nations in 1969, saying, "We want to be repatriated to our ancient homeland, Israel," were taking on the most ruthless, powerful, totalitarian system on earth, with very little likelihood of success, and a very high probability of landing in the Gulag, of losing their jobs, of losing their homes. On the one hand, the sense of paranoia and fear, and on the other hand, the sense of courage and bravery, are, if you will, the headline of the story. I was a lucky one. I had a couple of rough days at the end of my stay in the Soviet Union, but I was able to leave.
Though I had not asked to leave, and though I had no intention of going to Helsinki, I was still fortunate. Others spent years, a decade, longer, either in the Gulag or in this sort of gray zone called Refusenik status, which I would describe as after the before, but before the after. I got to Helsinki in the middle of December, I don't know, there are probably 30 minutes of light. I'm exaggerating to make a point, but I have never seen a brighter, lighter, sunnier place on earth than having left the suffocating paranoic Soviet Union and arriving in the free world, where there was color, and people were not looking over their shoulders, and the shelves were full, complete contrast. I remember the first two things that I wanted in Helsinki, for some reason, were fresh milk, which I never seemed to have drunk in the Soviet Union and my favorite food, pizza, which I also had not found in the Soviet Union. But Helsinki was a short stay, Jillian, and I realized that I wanted to do something. I moved on from Helsinki to stay briefly with some friends in Norway. What I was able to do while staying with them in a town called Haugesund, on the coast of Norway, was I began writing letters to members of Congress. None of whom I knew, I was a kid, but some of their names were legendary, names like Senator Henry Jackson, Congressman Charles A. Vanik, who became the authors of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. I wrote to them just as an American citizen, saying, "I just left the Soviet Union. This is what I saw. This is what I heard. This is what people asked for." Then, there were many people who had at the synagogue kind of whispered to me, addresses, or names, or given me tiny pieces of paper saying, "I have a cousin in," I don't know, St. Louis, or New York, or Israel. "Can you send them a message about me?" I had to try and hide these things when leaving the Soviet Union.
I spent about a month in Norway writing I don't know how many letters, dozens, maybe hundreds. Remember this was pre-email. This was the old fashioned way. Do you have paper? Do you have a pen? Do you have an envelope? Do you have an airmail stamp? Is there a mailbox somewhere nearby? This was quite different. Then, after Norway, I wanted to do more. I had heard already in New York and then in the Soviet Union that there were two places in Europe where Jews, if they got out, would go in transit. First stop Vienna, second stop then Rome. Then from Rome onward. I weighed Vienna and Rome just as a 25 year old. I said, "Rome sounds a heck of a lot more fun than Vienna." I took a train from Scandinavia to Italy, and I landed in Rome, and I literally knew no one, not a word of Italian or anything else.
I managed to find the office. It was a building that housed both the Joint Distribution Committee and HIAS, and I entered the building. I went to the HIAS office first, there were armed guards with sub-machine guns. They didn't believe a word of what I was saying, which was in English. "I've just come from the Soviet Union. I have a story to tell. I'm on fire. I want to help." They didn't believe a word, but they then went into the offices and a woman came out, her name was Marita Dresner, and she began to interrogate me. Within about five minutes of what turned out to be Jewish geography, she was a friend of my parents from the west side of New York who had relocated to Rome, because she spoke Russian and she wanted to help the Jews. I was offered a job shortly afterwards. I settled in Rome and I began working day and night in the HIAS offices in Rome for two years, meeting with literally thousands of Soviet Jews. All kinds of situations, all kinds of families, all kinds of backgrounds, learned an immense amount. What can I tell you? A very formative experience.
That was followed by a stint in Vienna, which was the first arrival point for Soviet Jews. Between Vienna and Rome, and Moscow and Leningrad, I began to have a pretty clear picture of the story, the journey, the complexity, the texture. One of the things I realized, and I could speak for hours, you won’t let me, but I could. The Soviet Jews had no understanding of the United States, those who were going to the US. How could they? Almost none of them had ever left the Soviet Union. If they had left, maybe was to go on a supervised trip to Bulgaria, or to East Germany, again, within the Soviet Bloc. They had been injected all their life to anti-American propaganda. They had lots and lots of misinformation, disinformation, rumors, and very few facts. I began in the evenings, after the daily work of processing all these families, to offer some voluntary seminars. I was completely unprepared for this, but someone I thought had to do it. Why not me? What's life in America like? And then it became, "Well, Rosh Hashanah's around the corner," or Yom Kippur, or Hanukkah, or Passover. What are these holidays? Again, the people traveling knew next to nothing. Eventually, I ended up writing a book and the book is called, in English, Entering a New Culture, Vstuplenie v novui︠u︡ zhizn', in Russian. It's a bilingual book, one page in English, and on the opposite side, in Russian. It was meant to be an introduction to life in the United States. By doing it with opposite pages, I also wanted to give people a chance to learn a little English or to practice their English. This book became very popular and every single Soviet Jew arriving in Rome received this. Then I realized a short time later, Jillian, that this was a beginning, but there was more, they knew nothing about being Jewish. If they knew anything at all, it was largely the negative notion of what was called the fifth point, pyatiy punkt, pyataya grafa, in their internal passports, internal, not external.
People on this call need to get out of the American notion, in the Soviet Union to move around, you needed an internal passport from the age of 16. The fifth point, in the passport, after name and patronymic, last name, first name, patronymic, the fifth point was nationality, natsional'nost'. Now, many Jews around the world debate who's a Jew? Who's not a Jew? Stalin decided that for Soviet Jews in the 1930s on this point. He said that if you're born to two Jews, you're a Jew. Doesn't matter whether you go to synagogue or not, whether you believe or not, you're a Jew. I'm thinking about Whoopi Goldberg and the whole issue of racism.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Right.
DAVID HARRIS: And the Anti-Defamation League definition of racism at the time, when Whoopi Goldberg spoke. For Stalin, Jews were a race. You inherited from your parents and your grandparents. If you were the product of a mixed marriage, you got to choose. Russian and Jewish, Belarusian and Jewish, Ukrainian and Jewish, you could imagine most people chose the non-Jewish nationality, because it was a lot easier to live in the Soviet Union to get a job, to enter school, to live quietly, if you were not Jewish.
Most Jews knew nothing. All they knew was the negativity of being a Jew, of being the target of anti-Zionism, of antisemitism. A few however, knew about being Jewish or Israel from a word that is no longer well known today, called samizdat, self-publishing. The single most influential book on Soviet Jews in the 60s and 70s, I believe by far, was Exodus, the work by Leon Uris. By the way, in the earlier session, Jillian, a month ago, I also mentioned that for me, as an American Jew, Exodus was perhaps the most influential book of my teenage years. But in Russia, you couldn't go to the bookstore and buy it. No way. Someone got hold of a copy, because they were smuggled in from outside, translated from English to Russian. Later, there were versions translated in Israel that were smuggled in a little more systematically. And they were passed from hand to hand, but by and large, most Jews coming out knew nothing. So I wrote a second book, a much thicker book, Evrei i mir, The Jewish World, and this was about Jewish history, Jewish holidays, Zionism, the American Jewish community, all sorts of things. That was given also to every single Soviet Jew passing through Rome. We're talking about hundreds of thousands of Jews over time. What was especially interesting for me about this project was I was really the last person equipped to write the book. I came, as I said in the earlier session from a very secular home, I did not go to Jewish day school, but I felt this gaping hole in knowledge. People were in Rome for months before they were able to move on to the United States, or in some cases, to Canada, or Australia, or other countries. Parenthetically, those going to Israel went directly from Vienna straight to Israel. In Rome, we didn't see the Israel bound Soviet Jews.
Again, in a pre-Google world, I had to sort of learn all of this from books, real books, libraries, or asking my mother to send me books from New York through the mail and going through the books and then writing this. I'm sure that scholars of Brandeis University would question some of the amateurishness of this book, and I'm the first to acknowledge it, but it had never been done before. The point of this is that it's really important for me to stress, Jillian, for us involved in this, for me, this was not simply a human rights campaign to get people out of a totalitarian country, although that's a very worthy goal. This was a campaign to bring Jews out, in order to bring Jews in. Out of the Soviet Union, out of the satellite nations, into the Jewish world and not just the free world. For me, it was extremely important, and I'm grateful to HIAS for supporting both book projects.
It was extremely important to begin the process as early as possible, that the message to these Soviet Jews was, "We are welcoming you back into the Jewish family." We are trying to stitch together the Jewish family, which has been divided by an iron curtain, on the other side of which, millions of Jews were disconnected from the world of Israel and Western Jewry. This was the process of beginning to reconnect.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: David, this story is so fascinating. I think it could be made into a Hollywood movie, just your experience alone. Thank you for explaining the journey of Jews out of the USSR at that time. But can I just ask, you touched on this a bit earlier. I also know that some of your family wasn't able to leave the Soviet Union, and I don't think you've touched on that publicly as part of this story. Can you tell us about their experience, and what happened to them, and what happened to their Jewish identity as they had to stay?
DAVID HARRIS: My maternal grandfather Lova, or Lova, as his Hebrew name, who was from Minsk, was able to leave with my grandmother, Ida and my mother Nellie, and my uncle Yuli, in 1929. It was a very difficult time to leave. Stalin led the Soviet Union, immigration was nonexistent. But they had an apartment in Moscow and a passport or customs official very much wanted the apartment. By the way, later, in the Soviet experience, he could have just seized the apartment. But in those days, apparently, there was still the negotiation, and he gave them four passports in exchange for the apartment. The four of them were able to leave. Some other members of my family were also able to leave around that time. But my grandfather had two sisters, both of whom stayed.
In some cases, Jews stayed, because actually believed still early on that communism was the answer to Jewish oppression and Jewish persecution. Remember, the early communist spokespeople spoke about the brotherhood of nationalities and human equality. Some Jews, so desperate after the oppression of the tsarist period. By the way, recall, most of the people on this call, I'm assuming, had family who left some part of what became the Soviet Union; Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, the Baltic States, et cetera, between 1880 and 1914, that was the tsarist period. They left because of horrendous, horrendous persecution. When the communists came along and they offered this tantalizing vision of a new society based on equality and brotherhood, I’ll add sisterhood, some Jews chose to believe it.
It took years for them to understand that they had been duped. Other Jews did not believe it, but didn't have a chance. Maybe they didn't have an apartment or they didn't have other opportunities to leave. Those two sisters stayed. I met them once in my life, and that was in 1974 when I was teaching and they were petrified to meet me, petrified to meet me. One of them had a son who had what was called dopusk. Dopusk is confidentiality, so call it security clearance. There were different levels of security clearance. He had a very high level. I never met him then. Then our families all lost track of each other. We never saw my grandfather's family in the Soviet Union again, never. There was no further contact. None. The sisters died, I know, but the son vanished. That was that. This, Jillian, is all too typical of many families that were divided during the communist era, which lasted over 70 years. Remember, after 70 years, again, no email, no social media, no LinkedIn, people were afraid on the Soviet side. Having relatives abroad could be a deal breaker. You could lose your job. You could risk admission to a university. Even if people had relatives abroad, they often kept it a secret and sometimes never acted on it.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Wow, that's terrifying. David, if I'm not mistaken, I think you are the only American Jew who both is Russian-speaking, and saw this entire story from multiple vantage points, from, as you said, Moscow, Leningrad, Vienna, Rome. On the train from Vienna to Rome, and also on the plane from Rome back to New York, back to the States. You also saw this lobbying in Washington. You were a National Coordinator for the Freedom Sunday Rally in Washington, DC. You have a very unique vantage point of this story. Can you explain why?
DAVID HARRIS: Add Israel into the mix, Jillian.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Of course. Can you explain for the audience why this whole journey is so relevant to what's going on today?
DAVID HARRIS: Well, first of all, I have to introduce an editorial note. I remain completely perplexed that this whole story is largely unknown to many Jews in the world today, including many American Jews, that this whole story is not taught or barely mentioned in our synagogues, in our day schools, in our afterschool programs, in other Jewish educational settings. I confess, I don't get it. Not just because I was so, so much involved for nearly 20 years, but for goodness sakes, this is one of the most dramatic and ultimately successful human rights movements in modern history, Jewish and non-Jewish. For a people that gathers every spring to celebrate the ancient exodus of Jews from Egypt as we should, as we are reminded we must, to me, I witnessed a modern day exodus that was in some respects, no less powerful, daunting. Dramatic.
Today, we speak about perhaps as many as two million Jews who survived the Soviet effort to extinguish their Judaism, who are now living in Israel, who are members of the Cabinet in Israel, who've been speakers of the Knesset, who are a backbone of Israeli science and technology. We're talking about up to, according to AJC’s Sam Kliger, a former refusenik, and our expert in this whole area, as many as 750,000 example-Soviet Jews living in the United States. We're talking about probably 150,000 today, living in Germany, maybe more. We're talking about big communities in Canada, in Australia, smaller communities in New Zealand. What an extraordinary chapter in modern Jewish history. For me, for starters, it should be taught.
It should be a source of inspiration, a source of pride, but it also tells me, it should tell us, what we can achieve through unity of purpose. When we stand together and we have a clear goal, shlach et ami, or in Russian, otpusti narod moy, let my people go. Four simple words in English, let my people go. That's the galvanizing aim of synagogues, Jewish communities, Jewish organizations, including of course, AJC, Canadian counterparts, British counterparts, French counterparts, Australian counterparts, South African counterparts, Latin American counterparts, West European counterparts, and of course, the central role played by Israel, we've shown we can move mountains. I need to add, we were not alone either.
We had many, many, many non-Jewish friends, supporters and activists. AJC helped found the Interreligious Task Force on Soviet Jewry, led by people like Sister Ann Gillen, Father Robert Drinan, Sister Rose Thering. These were wonderful Christians who devoted so much of their life to helping rescue Jews from the Soviet Union and the Soviet empire. We were able to attract others to stand with us, and look what we achieved. That, for me, should be a permanent reminder for all of us involved in Jewish advocacy. If only we can clarify where we stand together, combating antisemitism, strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship, helping Israel advance and widen the circle of peace. Once again, we can move mountains, but we need inspirational stories like this one to help remind us of what we're capable of achieving.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Absolutely. David, as you're speaking, I'm looking behind you at the photograph of Freedom Sunday, which was in 1987, and it drew over 250,000 participants, making it the largest Jewish gathering in American history. Speaking of moving mountains, that's just one example. What was this experience like for you working on this and how did it change the trajectory of Jews in the Soviet Union?
DAVID HARRIS: In 1987, there was almost no emigration. We had numbers. We knew from month to month how many Jews were able to leave? How many Jews arrived in Vienna? How many Jews went to Israel? How many Jews went on to Rome? How many Jews went eventually to the United States, or Canada, or other countries. In 1987, the number had declined to a mere trickle. One has to remember this whole movement was very much linked to the state of U.S.-Soviet relations. When relations were better, the numbers tended to grow. When relations declined, the numbers went down as well. Again, a very complicated issue to try and fully understand why the Soviets eventually let people leave, who they allowed to leave, whether it mattered to them whether people were leaving for Israel or not? Lots of questions here, we don't have the time, of course, for that.
But in 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev, who had taken power in 1985 was coming for his first visit to the White House. He had met Reagan before, in Reykjavík, Iceland. By the way, a number of us were there in Reykjavík, Iceland to campaign for Soviet Jews in the presence of Brezhnev and his entourage. We knew that when Gorbachev came, we had to do something. The question was, what was the something? The problem we faced was we only had, I think, 36 days in order to organize the campaign, once the date was confirmed. It was in December, and in December, it's cold, and it can be snowy. Washington has a very poor history of attracting Jews to demonstrations, very, very poor record. But we felt we had no choice, but to do something, the question was whether we did something inside with 500, 600 people and call them the representatives of six million Jews in the United States, or whether we did something outside on a larger scale.
Natan Sharansky had been freed from the Gulag a year earlier, 1986. He became very much involved in the planning. He told us very clearly, "Go for broke. Don't go for the smaller, go for the bigger." He threw out a number of 250,000, and we all gasped and gulped, because we knew the history in Washington. But believe me, if the Soviets didn't intimidate Sharansky, nor were we. We accepted the challenge, and with his help, and with the help of the major organizations, the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, the New York Conference on Soviet Jewry, the Federations, and the CRCs around the country, the synagogues. I especially want to give a shout out to Philadelphia and to Los Angeles, which had two of the really great Soviet Jewry campaigns over many years, and other cities, including Miami and Chicago were also right up there.
We pulled it off, Jillian. We pulled it off and we made it the place to be for anyone, anyone who understood that this was our moment, either to show up or to shut up. If we cared we had to put everything else aside. In some cases, people took long bus trips, overnight bus trips from Toronto, from Chicago, from Boston, but they came. For us, as organizers, if you know, we were not professional. I still sometimes wake up and shutter at some of the mistakes we made, too few bathrooms being one of them, but they came. We had a parade of speakers representing the leadership of America, beginning with Vice President George H.W. Bush, the leaders of the Senate and the House, the leaders of the governors and mayors associations, the leaders of civil rights organizations, Sharansky spoke, Peter, Paul and Mary sang. It was a long list, a long program. We Jews tend to over-program, but in this case the more the better. The important thing, Jillian. The most important thing, was the next morning, Monday, December 7th, Gorbachev had his first meeting with Reagan in the Oval Office. A participant in that meeting told us afterwards, the meeting began with President Reagan turning to Gorbachev, and saying, "Mr. President, yesterday, hundreds of thousands of Americans marched past this building, the White House, with one simple message, which I repeat to you today, 'Let them go, open the gates.'" This is the same President who said, "Tear down that wall, Mr. Gorbachev," in Berlin. "Open the gates."
They didn't open the day after, but shortly after, they began to open, and in the ensuing period until the Soviet Union collapsed four years later, over one million people marched through the gates. We know that everyone who attended that rally played a part and contributed to the extraordinary success of liberating, physically and spiritually, over one million people in that four year period alone.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Absolutely. It's such an inspiring story. Since we're heading toward the end of the hour, I do want to get a few audience questions in. I'm going to read one from Jackie Berman in Washington, DC. She's asking what role can Russian-speaking Jews play in the life of the U.S. and American Jewry? I've heard you say that the Soviet Jewish movement was not to get them out, but to get them into the Jewish world. Have they gotten in?
DAVID HARRIS: Thank you for the question, Jackie. The answer is yes and no. Some have gotten in, not enough have gotten in. There are big cultural divides, so we shouldn't underestimate the challenges. But from my perspective, from AJC's perspective, this is why we hired Sam Kliger, I mentioned his name before, to lead a program at AJC that would help bring ex-Soviet Jews into the mainstream Jewish community. Sam and the late Peretz Goldmacher, who himself was also a former Soviet Jew had in the late-90s gone from organization to organization here in New York, asking to build bridges. As they told the story, they were all received very politely, but no one acted on their request. Then, for the first time they came to AJC and we heard their request. How could we say no? We said yes.
For over 20 years, AJC has tried to be a model of creating bridges to bring Soviet Jews closer, and also to encourage them to create their own organizations that would also fill the advocacy space. Here's the key point for me, ex-Soviet Jews tend to be extraordinarily proud of being Jewish. They may or may not have a religious connection, but they're proud of being Jewish. They feel very connected to Israel, even if they live here. Many, if not most, have families who chose in Vienna to go to Israel. They feel connected, they feel proud. They don't have many of the layers of complication that other Jews in America these days seem to have when it comes to Israel. Also, Jillian, they understand antisemitism, because they lived it, they experienced it and they understood it can take multiple forms in including anti-Zionism and Moscow was the capital of anti-Zionism worldwide. While some American Jews, I hate to say it, continue to argue with themselves, with others. What is, what is not, is anti-Zionism, antisemitism, most ex-Soviet Jews can end that argument very quickly.
It is. I believe that this large number, as many as 750,000, can be an enormous asset to an American Jewish community that needs to strengthen its efforts to advance the U.S.-Israel relationship, to fight rising antisemitism, to breathe new life. I would add, when people think of ex-Soviet Jews, they think largely of the Ashkenazi Jews of the Western part of the Baltic States, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, and Russia. But how about the Bukharan Jews from Uzbekistan? How about the so-called Mountain or Gorskie Yevrei from Azerbaijan. How about the Georgian Jews? These are remarkable communities, in some cases, literally thousands of years old with a deep sense of faith, a deep reverence for the rabbis and a deep commitment to the Jewish future. What I'm saying is we need to be working harder and it's worth it.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Yes, absolutely. I'll just add for our viewers, David wrote an op-ed in the Times of Israel on the centrality of Israel in relation to Ukraine. I think it's very relevant for this conversation, as well. Our next question is from Dennis Feldman in Cleveland, who's asking, is there anything from the Soviet Jewry movement experience that might be helpful for those organizing in the U.S. against Russian interference and occupation in Ukraine? I'll just add, David, we've been to Ukraine twice in recent months, most recently, last month, in January, so any insights you can share?
DAVID HARRIS: First of all, you mentioned the op-ed, it's in today's Times of Israel and it's called “The Meaning of Israel in 2022.” Its aim is to make the point to remind people why Israel matters. Ukrainian Jews may or may not have a future in Ukraine, depending on what happens next, but they know that if they wish, they have a future in Israel. That's the essence of Zionism today and that's what I would hope more and more American Jews would understand. In terms of the question from Cleveland, it makes sense that it comes from Cleveland, because Cleveland is perhaps one of the greatest centers of Ukrainian American life. Our good friend, Andriy Futey, who leads the umbrella body, the AJC equivalent, called the UCCA, Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, is from Cleveland. I think the answer is absolutely, yes, yes, yes. There is much to learn if they wish.
We're happy, as we've told our Ukrainian American friends, many times, we collectively, the organizations I mentioned earlier, we collectively put Soviet Jewry on the American map and kept it there for as many years as was necessary. There were vigils every day, year after year, in front of the Russian or the Soviet embassy in Washington, DC, almost every synagogue in the country had big signs on their lawn saying, "Free Soviet Jewry." Most bar mitzvahs in America were linked to 13-year-old boys and girls in the Soviet Union who could not have a bar mitzvah. We went regularly to meet with the Administration and the Congress to put the Soviet Jewry on the agenda if they were going to be meeting with Soviet officials, so that no Soviet officials meeting an American could avoid here references to the persecution of Jews, to the denial of their cultural rights, to the prevention of their ability to leave to reunite with families, to move to Israel.
There's much that can be learned. I'm hoping that we'll see more vigils of support in front of the Ukrainian embassy, consulates, mission. That we'll see more activity, because this could be a long story, what we're now seeing. The Soviet Jewry story, depending on how you measure it, was 20 years, or it was 70 years. We are available, as we've told our Ukrainian American friends again and again, we AJC, who have been supportive of Ukrainian independence since 1991, who, as you said, Jillian, have traveled to Ukraine twice just in the last few months. We're ready to share the Soviet Jewry experience, the advocacy that we learned to put this issue on the American agenda and keep it there, keep it there. That's the hardest part. People have a short attention span these days. How do you keep an issue over the long haul? That's where we want to be of help.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Absolutely. Before we close out, I think you wrote another book on this subject, a bit lighter if I'm not mistaken. Where can people find this book? Also, if there's anything else you'd like to share before we close out?
DAVID HARRIS: Thank you. I guess, I'm now in the business of advertising. Although the book is over 30 years old, The Jokes of Oppression. One thing I learned first living in the Soviet Union and then working with the refugees for several years in Rome and Vienna, was that humor was an outlet, a kind of weapon for dealing with fear, with claustrophobia, with uncertainty. In the Soviet Union, I began to mentally try and remember the jokes that I heard, the political jokes that I heard. I couldn't write them down, because they would've been found. My room was regularly searched. But once I got to Rome, I began to write them down on three by five cards. I got hundreds and hundreds of jokes, which I translated from Russian into English.
Then, among the people who came through as a refugee was a former professor, Dr. Izrail Rabinovich. Lo and behold, he had the same hobby. We began collaborating and we got, well, a couple of thousand jokes altogether. Then, we had to winnow them down for which jokes could be understood in English to an American audience, which didn't always understand the political context of life in the Soviet Union. The result was this book by the two of us, Izrail Rabinovich and myself, called The Jokes of Oppression: The Humor of Soviet Jews. Once again Jews have shown that even when they're suffering, they can still find outlets. In this case, one of the outlets was some pretty good humor, if I say so.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Thank you so much, David, for sharing this story with our audience. It really is so inspiring. We can all take lessons from this whole journey, it's very relevant today. Claire, with that, back to you.
CLAIRE BAILEY: Thank you, David and Jillian, for today's insightful and inspiring conversation. Thank you to our global audience for joining us today. Our apologies to the many viewers whose questions we did not yet get to. For those of you who share a passion for Jewish advocacy, I encourage you to visit AJC.org to learn more about ways to get involved. Please mark your calendars for Thursday, March 17th, for part three of this six-part series where David will discuss Israel's centrality to the Jewish people, AJC, and Jewish advocacy. Thank you again and goodbye.