It’s hard to believe, but it’s almost thirty-five years since a small group of students, grandmothers and homemakers in Seattle got together to try to raise community consciousness about the plight of Jews in the former Soviet Union. Through clandestine visits to Jews in the FSU; demonstrations; protests at visiting Soviet cultural groups; hosting former refuseniks and an endless flow of mail and telephone calls to Jews in the FSU, the plight of Jews persecuted because of their Jewish activity and denied permission to leave became an item on the communal agenda.
Back in the 1970s, Seattle’s Jewish community had a pretty low profile on the national and international scene, so it’s not altogether surprising that Seattle’s role has been largely overlooked as the 40th anniversary of the Soviet Jewry movement is currently being marked by a flurry of conferences, articles and books.
Still, one recent Seattle event provided Seattleites the opportunity to find out just how closely our activities in the Pacific NW mirrored those of much larger Jewish communities, and what kind of an impact the Soviet Jewry movement had on hundreds of thousands of people on three continents.
On the evening of April 9, 2008 Seattle hosted the U.S premiere of a remarkable documentary film that recounts the story of this extraordinary movement that produced some of our most lauded contemporary Jewish heroes. Refusenik is told through the eyes of activists on both sides of the Iron Curtain, revealing a tapestry of heroism, Jewish identity, sacrifice and liberation.
Refusenik is about the triumph of grassroots activism. It chronicles the efforts of groups like Seattle Action for Soviet Jewry, who with little money and no established political connections, managed to be part of a non-violent movement that crossed ethnic, racial and religious boundaries to become part of one of the most successful human rights movements in history.
In Seattle in the early days, we encountered stiff opposition to our activities from many in the local Jewish establishment who still believed in conducting business in the “sha shtill” mode. Our efforts to raise human rights as an agenda item in the Seattle-Tashkent Sister City Committee were met with concern that the entire Seattle-Tashkent relationship would be disrupted. In 1985 we demonstrated outside KING 5 TV during the “Citizen’s Summit” hosted by Phil Donahue and Soviet propagandist Vladimir Pozner, while a few of us managed to infiltrate the studio audience to ask awkward questions about Soviet treatment of Jews. When we insisted on a human rights component to the Seattle Goodwill Games in 1990, business leaders balked. Still, all these events and many others too numerous to mention here captured the attention of the media and local political leaders and helped shine a spotlight on the courageous refuseniks and prisoners of Zion so that Soviet authorities could no longer act against them with impunity in the darkness of anonymity.
Here in Israel, where I have lived for the past decade, the contribution of Jews from Russian speaking countries has been enormous. Sadly, the story of how the refuseniks and prisoners of Zion of the 1970s and 80s paved the way for more than one million people from the FSU to make aliya since 1990 is largely unknown. Even many of those born to parents who escaped the Soviet Union are ignorant of the momentous events and unique cooperation between American and Soviet Jews that enabled their parents and grandparents to live in freedom.
Refusenik tells their story and provides a compelling insight into one of contemporary Jewry’s most uplifting episodes. Seattle should be proud that such an important film had it’s first U.S screening there, in the presence of its dynamic young director and producer, Laura Bialis.