NEW YORK — The two men who headed the Soviet Union and Israel when the mass immigration of Russian Jews began came together this week to celebrate with U.S. Jewish activists the 10th anniversary of that revolution.
Addressing a State of Israel Bonds dinner here Monday, Mikhail Gorbachev recalled that when Russian Jews first "responded to the call of their homeland," he regretted their leaving. "After all, they had done so much for our country," he said, citing Jewish contributions in science, culture, medicine and law.
"Nevertheless, I could not tell them not to go," he told the 1,200 supporters of Israel Bonds assembled at the New York Hilton. That was the "position of freedom," said Gorbachev, who received the group's Gates of Freedom Award.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who also spoke at the dinner, credited Gorbachev with giving "new life to the Jewish people" and enriching "the life of the state of Israel."
Beginning in 1989, Gorbachev's liberalizing policies of glasnost and perestroika "opened the gates" for nearly 1 million Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel.
Gorbachev may well have been moved to his sympathetic stance when, in 1952, he learned that a Jewish classmate, and a decorated soldier, had been thrown off a Moscow tram during the "so-called campaign against anti-Semitism."
Gorbachev said he brought up the incident at a Communist Party meeting. "There were many people who understood the absurdity and inhumanity of anti-Semitism," he recalled.
Gorbachev condemned anti-Semitism as "a shameful page" in Soviet history.
Although such prejudice has yet to be fully overcome, the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize winner said, "Thank God we are now a lot wiser and I hope also kinder."
Glasnost and perestroika also brought about the economic and social reform that led to the fall of Communism — and ended his presidency. He resigned in December 1991.
Indeed, while Gorbachev called the Israel Bonds event "an amazing experience," many of those in attendance were no less amazed at the historical turn of events.
Joining Gorbachev and Shamir on the two-tiered dais were community activists who were honored for their work on behalf of Soviet Jews. Many of them had campaigned against Soviet policies, even during the first years of Gorbachev's presidency.
Audience members included Jews from the former Soviet Union whose apartments had been searched and whose compatriots had been imprisoned during that period for their open Jewish identification.
A small group of demonstrators outside carried signs that read, "Israel Bonds, Don't Honor Pharaoh Gorbachev."
Rabbi Avi Weiss, chairman of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns-Amcha, which organized the protest, equated honoring Gorbachev with "historical revisionism."
He also objected to a purported $100,000 speaker's fee.
But a spokesman for Israel Bonds said the amount — paid to the foundation Gorbachev now directs — was "nowhere near what was reported."
Still, those who heard Gorbachev's emotional speech were impressed by his apparent respect for the Jewish people and appreciation for Israel, which he called "an example to other great nations."
"Only the Jews," he said, could build a state "in a place where there is only one resource — talent."
Judith Cohen, an honoree for her Soviet Jewry work in Atlanta, acknowledged the atmosphere of anti-Semitic persecution during Gorbachev's first years in office, but said forgivingly, "I think that was the world at that time."
Cohen, who spent two months teaching English to Soviet refugees in Ladispoli, Italy, stressed the need to celebrate what she considered to be a victory for the Jewish people.
She said Gorbachev was "gallant to be here with us and to praise us."