According to a widespread myth, writes Elliott Abrams, unprecedented unity among Americans in general and American Jews in particular won Soviet Jews the freedom to emigrate. But this is wrong on both counts: first, U.S. Jewry and the Soviet Jewry movement were deeply divided internally and faced hostility from powerful figures in American politics; second, what achieved results was not rallies on the streets of New York but the prudent application of American economic power.
[H]ow did American Jews leverage their own country’s power to affect the internal affairs of the USSR, a great power itself and an enemy of the United States? . . . It is very clear that demonstrations and speeches in the United States did not move the USSR. What moved it was that persecution of Soviet Jews became very expensive. As Natan Sharansky himself has made clear, it was Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, more than anyone else, who applied the pressure [with the 1975 Jackson-Vanick amendment, which tied trade with the USSR to human-rights issues]. . . .
The Soviets gave ground on banning Jewish emigration when those limitations appeared to cost them more than they were worth. Governments violate human rights because they think it is in their interest to do so. Lecturing them is appropriate, but it will not force change. . . . It is absolutely true that the Soviet Jewry movement was on the side of the angels, and that helps explain its very broad support in the United States. But that isn’t what the Soviet regime was worried about; trade, loans, and money were.
As for the argument of the Nixon administration that the demands of realpolitik and the importance of détente with Moscow trumped concern over the fate of Soviet Jewry, Abrams writes:
[One] problem with realpolitik is that it isn’t very realistic. It excludes the domain of individual, principled, passionate action or sees such actions and movements merely as obstacles to the smooth working of interstate relations. But such relations are a means, not an end. It was never worth sacrificing the freedom of Soviet Jews or the American commitment to human rights to smooth relations with a hostile power. Freedom was more valuable—not only as an abstraction, and not only in its impact on the lives of refuseniks and their families, but in strategic terms. It helped bring about the collapse of the United States’ greatest enemy.
Thus, the Soviet Jewry movement, and later Ronald Reagan’s confrontation with the Soviet Union, proved that a freedom strategy was in the end more realistic as a matter of international politics. The Soviet Jewry movement weakened America’s principal enemy where détente had strengthened it.