IT'S RARE TO FIND two separate student initiatives at Harvard taking aim at the same target, making virtually the same statement at almost the same time, and making a great deal of sense, all at once. But it's not so rare to find little student response.
Both events last week used bold, provocative words. "An entire nation is dying, and no one seems to care." This was Adam Augustynski '86's opening words to a teach-in October 21 on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Augustynski is the president of the Harvard Radcliffe Democratic Club, which co-sponsored the event with, strangely enough, the Republican Club. Both his words and the unusual alliance were clearly intended to jolt the audience. But while the words and the joint sponsorship didn't rouse anger and revulsion, the subject matter did.
Augustynski was not engaging in hyperbole. Even by conservative estimates, over a million people have died as a result of the Soviet occupation, which began in December, 1980. An additional six to eight million have lost their homes. Four million refugees languish near starvation in Pakistan, perhaps two million in Iran, and another million or so on the outskirts of the capital, Kabul. Actual footage of battles and decimated villages brought the story to life, morbidly speaking, in brilliant color.
Facts, like pictures, tend to speak for themselves. Only 50 or so people attended the teach-in; it was well-advertised, and the combined membership of the Democratic and Republican Clubs runs into the triple digits.
THE PEOPLE WHO organized the other initiative were equally serious with their language. "Every letter means so much to the Soviet refuseniks because we're their only hope," said Caryn Broitman '84. She and about 50 other students and faculty conducted a letter-writing campaign Oct. 20 and 21 to pressure for the release of 15 Jewish families who have been denied the opportunity to emigrate from the Soviet Union. These so-called refuseniks are not an isolated phenomenon; some estimates of their number run into the tens of thousands.
In a sense it is not their inability to emigrate which constitutes the cruelest injustice against these Soviet Jews. Every nation must possess control over its borders and migration policy, or the very definition of sovereignty loses cogency. The more heartless treatment of these people by the authorities comes after their petition for emigration has been refused, or "delayed indefinitely." Often the head of the family loses his job. Families are split up, individuals are "relocated" far from their homelands, and harassment from the government, both petty and serious, becomes commonplace.
Nothing should be surprising about this treatment of Soviet Jews. Like Islamic peoples, Ukrainians, Estonians, Latvians, Orthodox Christians, Asians, and a host of other ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union (which far outnumber ethnic Russians when added up), Jews are excluded from all positions of significance in the party, the government, the military, and industry. One of the last havens for Soviet Jews--academia--is being steadily eroded by the ostracism of the mushrooming refusenik population.
The stories told by the speakers at the letter-writing event on the steps of Widener were just as riveting as the film footage of Afghanistan's ongoing depopulation. But, again, actions speak louder than words. Fifty or so was the maximum number of people at the event at any given time, and the organizers hoped for 1000 letters, as a best-case scenario, by the end of the week.
THE KIND OF MOBILIZATION which the divestiture movement has at times rallied must surely be the envy of many other Harvard student groups. No one can argue with the two causes espoused by less than 100 people last week. One thousand letters is surely impressive, and, no matter how hard the Soviet authorities try, information on their genocide continues to leak out in forums like the one last week. But the fact remains that gigantic, systematic injustices around the world go virtually unnoticed on our campus.
The argument can easily be made that the United States and Americans generally have more influence on South Africa and other right-wing authoritarian regimes through our international investment. It can also be said that the blatant racism in South Africa strikes a special chord in the hearts and minds of Americans which, in turn, demands special action.
But the lack of similar reasoning applied to the Soviet Union is striking, to say the least. American wheat, technology, and investment are very important to the Soviet Union. (The effectiveness of economic sanctions against them, however, is doubted by almost all observers. Indeed, the current crackdown on Jews desiring to emigrate is linked by most Soviet experts to the Carter grain embargo and other souring facets of U.S./Soviet relations. Can we expect the same increase in internal harshness in South Africa as a result of hypothetical sanctions?) But we hear almost nothing, even from the Reagan Administration, about new sanctions against the Soviet Union.
Likewise, the Soviet Union is not only one of the most racist regimes in the world, but it is also one of the few actively practicing genocide. Soviet policy in Afghanistan appears aimed at long-term destruction of all indigenous means of supporting human life in the countryside. A "scorched-earth" policy utilizing the latest in helicopters and warplanes continues apace. There is no reason not to expect the Afghan people to cease to exist in a matter of just a few more years, after a few million more deaths. And the position of racial minorities within the boundaries of the Soviet Union shows no prospect of improvement either. Long-term Soviet domestic policy is also aimed at eradication, forcible if necessary, of identifiable subcultures.
The divestiture movement has shown that activism for just causes is still alive on American campuses. One can argue about goals and effectiveness, but at the root of the divestiture movement lies a truly humanitarian impulse. It's a shame that so little seems left over for even more just causes.