Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The USSR and Iran

On Sunday we had a visit from Philip Spiegel, an electrical engineer from the San Francisco bay area, who was not only an activist in the Soviet Jewry movement back in the 1980s, but decided to write a book about it and produced his magnum opus, "Triumph Over Tyranny: the heroic campaign that saved 2,000,000 Soviet Jews," in 2008.  He came to AACI Netanya while on a visit to Israel and spoke about the campaign to save the Soviet Jews and the relevance of that campaign to the current situation viv-a-vis Iran.
First, he described how he managed to enter the Soviet Union in 1984 as part of a team to run in the Moscow marathon.  This gave him the excuse to visit Jewish refuseniks.  While meeting one family he told them that he was running in the marathon and they introduced him to their relative Alexzander Joffe who had been refused permission to run.  So when the time came, he and his wife and several others managed to sneak Alexander into the race, and now he lives in Haifa and he came down to meet Phil after many years. 
Phil described the origins and activities of the Soviet Jewry movement in the US and elsewhere and explained some of the reasons for its success.  First, the USSR was a crumbling giant, although noone seemed to realize this at the time, they were economically bankrupt.  They needed to earn dollars and so they were eager to trade and improve relations with the West.  The campaign to free the Soviet Jews used this fact without realizing its true significance for the Soviets.  Second, the American Jewish community had a guilt complex about not having done enough to save the Jews of Europe during WWII, in fact the whole community had been self-conscious and passive.  Now in a freer time, they felt that they had to make sure this did not happen again, and this applied from the street activists to the highest levels of the establishment. 
But, in fact, there was a schism between the grassroots activist groups, combined in the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry (UCSJ) that wanted to push the Soviets to the max, and the Jewish establishment, represented by the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ) that wanted to use quiet diplomacy and apply the brakes on public demonstrations.  In effect this combination worked well, playing the 'good cop-bad cop' routine to the hilt.  Whenever the Soviets claimed that the established Jewish community was pressing them too hard, all they had to do was threaten to unleash the grassroots activists on them, and that often worked.
Phil described the Reagen-Gorbachev summit of 1987 as the tipping point, when 250,000 demonstrators from all over the country descended on Washington to press for freedom for Soviet Jews.  Although this was not a specific agenda issue at the summit, Pres. Reagen used the Jackson-Vanik amendment, that limited trade with the USSR subject to freedom of emigration for its Jews, that was passed in 1975 and the Helsinki accords agreed that year, as levers to pressure Gorbachev, who had to give way if he wanted trade and good relations with the West. It is no0w the 25th anniversary of that event.
Phil listed the lessons learned from the success of the Soviet Jewry movement: 1. Negotiate with whoever is prepared to talk; 2. Maintain coinfidentiality rather than open discourse; 3. If you have a success, don't crow openly about it to the media; 4. Be patient.  He proposed that these same lessons could be applied in dealing with the Iranian regime over the current nuclear crisis. But, there are problems with this comparison, first the Soviets were deemed to have been sane, while the sanity of such leaders as Pres. Ahmedinejad and the Ayatollahs is in doubt; second, the movement to free Soviet Jews was a widespread popular movement, while the basis of the Iranian conflict is largely in diplomacy; third, the sanctions that are being applied against Iran are beginning to work; finally the Iranian regime, like most dictatorial regimes, is mainly interested in its survival, and so if military threats are considered to be serious and credible, they may decide to back-off, just like the Soviets did in the Cuban missile crisis.  
Nevertheless, one of the chief lessons learned from the success of the Soviet Jewry movement is that being timid in face of apparent overwhelming force does not work, only facing and opposing the enemy and its interests on all levels can succeed, and it did.


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