When I first arrived at the Petersburg Federal Correctional Institution, I referred to the other inmates as "the prisoners." Then it dawned on me: "That includes us." Four other rabbis and I went to jail for having demonstrated within 500 feet of the Soviet Embassy in Washington, protesting the Soviet policy of cultural genocide against the Jews, who are not permitted to emigrate or to practice their religion. The Soviet Union arrests and sends to labor camps the Hebrew and religious teachers whose only crime is trying to maintain a vestige of Jewish identity among the 2.5 million Jews forced to remain in the Soviet Union.
But how had it come about that we were imprisoned?
The U.S. attorney and the Justice Department have chosen to prosecute rabbis and others demonstrating within 500 feet of the Soviet Embassy, while not pressing charges against those detained for demonstrating at other embassies. A primary principle of the American tradition of democracy, inspired by the Bible, has thus been violated: "Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof" (Leviticus XXV).
It was an example of selective prosecution. Further, the court put the letter of the law over intent and moral imperative, not even permitting testimony in our defense regarding the necessity to prevent a greater evil. We had no option but to reject an unjustly imposed sentence, and, as a matter of conscience, five of us went to jail to serve a 15-day sentence. Our protest within the forbidden 500-foot range consisted of reading from the Torah Scroll of the obligation to love God and to fulfill divinely inspired values.
By going to prison we also sought to experience a taste of what Soviet Jews endure, as well as to highlight their plight. Being in an American prison, while certainly limiting our freedom and many of our rights, still afforded us the opportunity to pray, to eat kosher food and to observe the Sabbath. Conditions in an American prison provide religious and cultural opportunities that Soviet citizens, and Jews in particular, are denied, even in the conduct of their ordinary lives.
Bishop Desmond Tutu recently said "human beings are made for freedom." Rabbi Moses Cordovera, the 16th century mystic, taught that the souls of all human beings are intertwined as one. We are morally bound to act with uncompromising courage until every single human being can live free from persecution. Thus those who protest against apartheid, persecution of Soviet Jewry, and other human rights violations all share a common moral imperative.
During World War II, our country became aware of the annihilation of European Jewry. Yet our government refused to bomb the tracks to Auschwitz. Humanitarians at that time should have conducted acts of civil disobedience to influence official policies. The victims suffered greatly from the silence of the world. We cannot and will not remain silent while the Kremlin continues a "final solution" for Soviet Jews. They have learned of our willingness to stand by them. We pray that this gives them hope and strength to persevere.
The members of our society are obsessed with "me first" rather than with justice for the oppressed. Real freedom results only from striving to provide it for others. Otherwise we are imprisoned by selfishness. The Russians are conducting an assault on Judaism and its teachings of compassion and love for all human beings. Yet there are those who want trade and cultural exchange with the Soviets regardless of human rights violations, and who are reluctant to speak out because they are afraid of making waves.
Our nation must not be intimidated in its pursuit of human rights. The Roman emperor Caligula once sought to install an idol of his own image in the Holy Temple of Judea. The historian Josephus records how 10,000 people stood in the way of his officer Petronius and said they would have to be killed before such an outrage could occur. This act of civil disobedience, in keeping with the Talmudic law to accept death rather than idolatry, so moved Petronius that he risked his life and refused to implement the Roman emperor's order.
The redemption of captives is a religious responsibility in Judaism and a moral obligation in general. The time has come to forthrightly articulate the issue in these spiritual rather than merely political terms, for we Americans need to free not only the obviously oppressed but ourselves.