200,000 Rally at Capitol, Demand Soviets Free Jews
On the eve of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s arrival in the United States, more than 200,000 American Jews and supporters gathered Sunday on the mall in front of the U.S. Capitol and demanded that the Soviet Union end suppression of religious freedom and allow the emigration of an estimated 400,000 Jewish refuseniks.
“Let our people go!” the demonstrators chanted. The orderly demonstration, called “Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jews,” was one of history’s largest gatherings of American Jewry. It came just hours after Soviet authorities broke up a smaller gathering assembled with the same objectives in Moscow, manhandling some protesters and briefly detaining an American television reporter.
Led by author Elie Wiesel and former refusenik Natan Sharansky, the throng in Washington gathered on the Ellipse, a large park south of the White House, and marched to the west front of the Capitol, waving placards with the names of hundreds of Soviet Jews refused permission to leave the Soviet Union.
“Free Meshkov,” said one. “Free Meiman,” said another. “What about the Khassins?” read a third.
Some demonstrators also carried signs asking “Where Is Glasnost for Soviet Jews?” and waved Israeli flags emblazoned with the Star of David.
The demonstration was markedly low-key and dominated by family groups, in contrast to many of the large protest rallies that occasionally fill the mall. Young parents pushed strollers and steered toddlers through the shoulder-to-shoulder traffic as the march moved down Constitution Avenue past the Washington Monument. Some older folks toted lawn chairs to use when they reached the stage area. Teen-agers from Jewish youth organizations marched in blue jeans, some middle-aged matrons in furs.
Banners listed the names of Jewish organizations and scores of city delegations. The throng listened attentively to the series of speeches and responded to them with warm applause.
President Reagan, who will welcome Gorbachev at the White House on Tuesday morning, gave Sunday’s demonstration his full blessing. In a statement issued by the White House press office, he promised to press the cause of open emigration in his summit talks with the Soviet leader this week.
“The Soviet leadership has taken some limited, but positive, steps on the issue of human rights,” he said. “We welcome these actions, but they are far from enough. There are more recent signs of stagnation, but I have high hopes for new, forward steps by the Soviets.”
“I shall press for them in my talks with General Secretary Gorbachev in the coming days--for the release of all refuseniks, for full freedom of emigration and for complete freedom of religion and cultural expression. We shall not be satisfied with less.”
On the platform with religious leaders and Jewish activists, Vice President George Bush reiterated the pledge to press Gorbachev on human rights issues.
“If we in the United States are not strong enough to stand up for human rights,” he asked, “who in God’s name will?”
He contrasted the huge Washington gathering and the small Moscow demonstration of refuseniks broken up earlier in the day, and addressed himself to the Soviet leader, who is en route here to sign an arms control agreement. “Mr. Gorbachev, let these people go,” Bush shouted. “Let them go, let them go.”
In a television interview last week, Gorbachev suggested that American pressure for emigration of Soviet Jews was nothing more than an organized “brain drain.” That assertion was ridiculed with posters and in speeches Sunday.
Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, told the crowd that he wished there was time to make an appeal for each refusenik.
“If I had three days, I would read the name of every Jew refused permission to leave the Soviet Union. All these names must be known, all need us,” he said.
In advance of Sunday’s rally, organizers had predicted that tens of thousands would show up. Shannon Crockett, a spokesman for the District of Columbia police, put the actual figure in excess of 200,000 at 2 p.m.
Among those participating were several presidential candidates, including Bush, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.).
Buses by the hundreds began pouring into Washington early Sunday morning. Chartered planes, departing before dawn, brought demonstrators from the West Coast and began returning as soon as the rally ended shortly before sunset.
With midday temperatures in the mid-40s and a brisk wind blowing, demonstrators bundled against the chill shuffled along the parade route waving signs with the names of hundreds of refuseniks and chanting, “Take down the iron gate; let our people emigrate!”
Among them were Robert and Roseanne Levin, who had just arrived aboard one of 170 buses that came from Philadelphia. They carried posters supporting the emigration pleas of Slava Royaks, his wife and three daughters, who have been seeking permission to leave the Soviet Union for 10 years.
Roseanne Levin said she visited the Soviet Union last year and met with 70 to 80 Soviet Jews and their families who are being denied exit visas.
She said she was encouraged by the more moderate stance of the Gorbachev regime, which has been issuing exit visas this year to between 700 and 900 Jews every month, compared to 914 for all of last year. But she expressed concern that the refusenik movement is being skillfully undermined by the release of Hebrew teachers and highly visible figures such as Sharansky.
“They are letting the leaders out,” she said, “and now we must help to develop a new generation of leaders for all of the thousands still there.”
Peak of 1979
U.S. and Israeli officials have estimated that between 380,000 and 400,000 Soviet Jews have sought permission to leave the Soviet Union. The exodus reached its peak in 1979, when 51,000 Jews were given exit visas; at the current rate, about 10,000 are expected to leave this year.
Kathy Arkow, a nursery school teacher at the Canton, Ohio, Community Jewish Center, said she and her three children left home at 12:30 a.m. Sunday on a bus to participate in the march.
“We thought it was really important for the children to see this and to know that we can do something,” Arkow told the Associated Press. She said her 13-year-old daughter had a Soviet pen pal who was unable to practice her religion.
Demonstrators predicted their presence in the streets would have an impact. Their turnout here, a day before Gorbachev’s arrival, coupled with the breakup of the Moscow demonstration, seemed likely to escalate the attention to the human rights issue--at least in the minds of about 5,000 press representatives covering the third Reagan-Gorbachev summit.
Credit to Americans
Sharansky, who was imprisoned in the Soviet Union for eight years before being released in early 1986 to join his wife in Israel, gave American Jews much of the credit for his own freedom.
Standing on a box behind the podium, Sharansky began, “Shalom, friends.”
“Mr. Gorbachev today destroyed one more Jewish demonstration in Moscow,” he continued, but “no missile, . . . no camps and prisons can extinguish the light of the candle of freedom. We will not be silent with the release of several individuals. We will not be silent. History will judge if the world had enough will and resolve to do what you are doing today--to stand up and be counted and make your voices heard.
“Our freedom and the freedom of our brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union are inseparable,” he said.
Bush said that Soviet leaders must also extend freedom of religion to those who choose to remain in that country. “Let them study Hebrew, let them worship in their synagogues,” he said.
‘Don’t Forget Us’
Roseanne Levin said she returned from the Soviet Union convinced that mass demonstrations by American Jews can influence Soviet government policy.
“They want us to be active,” she said of the Soviet refuseniks. “They want us to speak out--they said that over and over again, ‘Don’t forget us.’ ”