Jonathan S. Tobin
Religious persecution is still a Jewish issue
IT STARTED as a lost cause, supported by only a lonely few activists. Today, a groundswell is forming. Soon, it will gain the support of a nation.
Those words could well have described the evolution of the movement to free Soviet Jewry in the 1970's. But today it applies to the efforts of those who seek to end the persecution of religious believers around the globe.
In contrast to the situation in the past, the most prominent victims of religious persecution in the world are no longer Jewish. For this we are truly thankful, but that does not lessen our obligation to speak out on behalf of the persecuted.
In Communist countries like China, Tibet, Muslim countries and elsewhere, it is most often Christians who are in peril. And despite the limited improvement in the Chinese human-rights situation noted last week by the State Department's annual report, the need to keep the pressure on by passing the Freedom From Religious Persecution bill before the Congress is as great as ever.
The bill, also known as Wolf-Specter for its two principal sponsors, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), would ban all but humanitarian aid to countries who persecute religious minorities. It will also ease the process of gaining asylum in this country for those fleeing religious persecution. The bill has been changed repeatedly to answer the concerns of critics and is gaining in support, despite the opposition of the Clinton administration which is still uninterested in changing its policy of appeasing China.
Opponents of Wolf-Specter have trotted all the usual excuses for inaction, such as the canard that it might harm the victims more than help. That's the same sort of nonsense we heard from opponents of the Soviet Jewry movement.
Unfortunately most of the organized Jewish world has yet to get behind Wolf-Specter. To date, only the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the pro-Republican National Jewish Coalition have endorsed it. Where are all the other Jewish groups? We have yet to hear a good answer to that question. Former prisoner of Zion and current Israeli cabinet minister Natan Sharansky recently spoke out in favor of Wolf-Specter. Last year, I chided him in an article in the Jerusalem Post for his reluctance to speak out on behalf of the victims of Chinese human rights abuses during trade negotiations with these Chinese. But within three months, he changed his mind and chose to demand "linkage" between China's human rights violations and Israeli trade.
Today he is speaking on behalf of the movement to end religious persecution by saying that this effort "reflects what is best and noblest about America." He went on to make the same analogy that supporters of Wolf-Specter have made about those who protested against abuses in the former Soviet Union. "When the West stood up for its most basic values and spoke up for persecuted Soviet Jewish communities, Soviet chains around churches and political dissidents also began to shatter."
Sharansky is right. The best way to force an end to all categories of human rights abuse is to start with religious persecution. And the Jewish community has an absolute moral obligation to take up this cause.
Those who choose to stay silent have a variety of reasons. Some have not supported Wolf-Specter because of their support for the Clinton administration and unwillingness to oppose it on any issue. Still more, including many in the business community of our own state are motivated by their lust for a piece of the trade with China.
Some Jewish organizations have paid lip service to the cause of religious persecution but have still found reasons to keep their distance. Most of this reluctance stems from their distaste for making common cause with conservative Christians on any issue -- even human rights. That may make sense to some in the inner circles of organized Jewry, but I find it every bit as dishonorable as the more crass excuses of politics or money. It is high time for the Jewish community to speak with one voice on religious persecution -- just as we did once on Soviet Jewry.
The victims of religious persecution, be they Buddhists in Tibet, Catholics in
China or other denominations of Christians in the Sudan and elsewhere, are all
waiting for our voices to be heard on their behalf. How long will we keep them
2/6/98: A lost cause remembered (the failure of the Bund)
2/1/98: Economic aid is not in Israel's interest
1/25/98: Jews are news, and a fair shake for Israel is hard to find