Thursday, August 05, 2004

A Committed Citizen


Teresa Heinz Kerry has long been an advocate for human rights and for economic, scientific and creative freedom. Some of her earliest childhood memories reflect her family’s experience, as Portuguese citizens living in the African colony of Mozambique, of being disenfranchised second-class citizens (a designation that was even noted on their passports). As a college student in South Africa during the late 1950’s, she saw at first hand--and joined in protests against--the unfairness and brutality of the apartheid regime. “That remembrance,” she told a meeting of the American Jewish Committee’s Philadelphia chapter, “propels me to stand tall for those who cannot stand.”

In 1977 she was part of the core group that, the next year, became Senate Wives for Soviet Jewry. Russian Jews who wanted to immigrate to Israel were being held in the Soviet Union, trapped in a nightmare of legalistic constraints and bureaucratic muddle (with a strong and ugly undercurrent of anti-Semitism running not far below the surface). A number of leading scientists and intellectuals known as the “refuseniks” (including Anatoly Scharansky and Iosif Begun) were also being held in the gulag as Prisoners of Conscience. In order to bring the pressure of public opinion to bear on the Soviet government to observe internationally accepted standards of human rights, the Congressional Wives group organized high-profile events including letter-writing campaigns and silent vigils in front of the Soviet Embassy. As an original member and later co-chair, Teresa Heinz helped to arrange conferences and traveled widely to speak on behalf of the organization. In 1984, she helped to sponsor and conduct a conference in Washington with wives of MPs from Canada, the United Kingdom, Israel and the Netherlands; the groups met with White House and congressional officials and were addressed by Elie Wiesel. In 1987, she helped to organize and lead a small delegation to the Soviet Union. In a series of unprecedented meetings in Moscow, the Congressional Wives met with “refuseniks” (Jews the Soviet government refused permission to emigrate to Israel) from two women’s groups and were the first non-official group allowed to take their case directly to Soviet emigration officials.

“This is an age of heroes,” Teresa Heinz told audiences when she reported on the trip, “but our heroes frequently have foreign-sounding names: Brailovsky, Slepak, Nudel, Orlov, Rudenko, Murzhenko, Federov, Klevanov, Scharansky and Prestin. And each of these symbolizes countless other brave, nameless men and women who dare to speak out against a repressive Soviet state that ruthlessly, brutally and cynically seeks to deny them the most elementary human freedoms.”

In 1977, with three young children at home, Teresa Heinz became involved in organizing what became, in 1978, the National Council for Children and Television (which later became the National Council for Families and Television).