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Rosenblum writes: "CBS Morning News starts each day with “Your World in 90 Seconds”: Trump, freak storms and fires, dueling politicos, seasonal sports and such oddments as Goldie Hawn bouncing on a trampoline. Places like, say, Belarus never seem to make the cut."

Belarusian opposition supporters light phones lights and wave an old Belarusian national flags during a protest rally in front of the government building at Independent Square in Minsk, Belarus, August 19, 2020. (photo: Dimitri Lovetsky/AP)
Belarusian opposition supporters light phones lights and wave an old Belarusian national flags during a protest rally in front of the government building at Independent Square in Minsk, Belarus, August 19, 2020. (photo: Dimitri Lovetsky/AP)

Where Democracy Isn't a Spectator Sport

By Mort Rosenblum, Reader Supported News

08 October 20


UCSON – CBS Morning News starts each day with “Your World in 90 Seconds”: Trump, freak storms and fires, dueling politicos, seasonal sports and such oddments as Goldie Hawn bouncing on a trampoline. Places like, say, Belarus never seem to make the cut.

“All that election trouble is over,” a friend replied when I mentioned Belarus. “Isn’t it?” No, America has just stopped watching. The strife-tossed little nation east of Poland, ex-Soviet Byelorussia, is still fighting to break free since a rusted Iron Curtain collapsed 30 years ago.

Had my grandmother not lost hope in the Russian Revolution she joined in Belarus at age 13, I’d likely be in the streets of Minsk facing water cannons among enraged citizens who take their democracy seriously. Their durable dictator stole the August 9 election, and they’re not having it.

Daily protests swell on Sundays to as many as 200,000 people. In proportion, that is as if four million Americans thronged the Mall in Washington. Riot police first tried brutality, wounding scores with hard-plastic bullets and clubs. Now they mostly herd demonstrators off to jail.

The Associated Press estimates more than 10,000 protesters are locked up, many facing long prison terms. Others fled into exile. Vladimir Putin is resisting President Alexander Lukashenko’s pleas for Russian troops to quell the insurgency, likely waiting until Americans make a choice.

Lukashenko claims 80 percent of the vote, a clear mandate to continue his 26 years of despotic rule. The official tally gave 10 percent to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. She ran in place of her husband, Siarhei, after the popular dissident blogger was arrested in May. The Coordination Council she directs from Lithuania insists on a transparent do-over.

I’ve covered pro-democracy turmoil in a lot of countries, but Belarus is particularly poignant as America faces its most crucial election in history. And it’s personal.

As a kid under the czar, Anna Rosenblum, my grandmother, made matches each day in a factory until her fingers bled. She sneaked out to the woods near her town, Borisov, where older local firebrands rallied behind Moscow revolutionaries who promised Russians a decent life.

When bitter fighting broke out in 1917, Anna shielded her five kids on a farm. Her husband, in the Red Army, was tortured to death by Polish mercenaries. She hung on until Stalin twisted Lenin’s hopeful plans for Russia. In 1922, she herded her brood onto a ship in England. The boat just ahead of them sank in stormy seas, but the Rosenblums made it to Ellis Island.

The family was refused entry because an old scar from scarlet fever or diphtheria left a bald spot on my father’s scalp. No one remembers how Anna talked her way into America. From what I saw of her strength and courage in her last years, it is no surprise that she managed.

They settled with relatives in Wisconsin. My dad, at 14 with no English, endured little kids’ taunts in grade school. But, well-taught in Belarus, he finished high school in a year. He bought produce at dawn and worked at a small grocery, saving up enough to buy his own store.

Dad married my mother, whose parents had fled anti-Semitism and czarist brutality in Ukraine in 1903. She read voraciously, and her passion for Zane Grey prompted a vacation in Arizona during a hard winter in 1946. Soon after, we all moved to Tucson. I was three.

By today’s simplified labels, Anna was a raging leftist. She spoke her mind in no uncertain terms. But she was just a mother who wanted more for her kids than despots who flout their own stated principles and persecute racial and religious minorities they consider to be inferior.

In a family memoir, my uncle Lou captured the reality of her time, still on point today:

“We have to keep in mind that the revolution at that point was like fighting for Freedom Fighters. Communism/socialism had a marvelous constitution. The reality did not quite work out that well in some cases, particularly the police state now. But it was very easy for intelligent people to be impressed with the communist constitution and its goals.”

And for Jews, among others, it was more than about seeking opportunity. I almost certainly would not be on Minsk streets today. Hitler’s Nazis who occupied Borisov in the waning days of World War II herded 300,000 people in the surrounding area into six hastily-built death camps.

When we moved west, much of the clan stayed in Wisconsin, where Senator Joe McCarthy raged against communists in the 1950s, particularly those with roots in godless Russia. The family kept Anna’s blazing eyes and sharp tongue under wraps in Tucson.

The other day I came upon a Politico piece by David Glosser, a Boston neuropsychologist, about his own family’s flight to America from a Belarus shtetl in 1903 to escape the Czar’s vicious anti-Jewish pogroms and forced military conscription of children.

The Glosser patriarch reached Ellis Island with $8; his three languages did not include English. He and his son worked as peddlers and in sweatshops to pay debts back home, then buy passage for their family. As their fortunes grew, they employed many thousands over the decades.

This all matters because Glosser is Stephen Miller’s uncle.

“I have watched with dismay and increasing horror as my nephew, an educated man who is well aware of his heritage, has become the architect of immigration policies that repudiate the very foundation of our family’s life in this country,” he wrote, adding:

“I shudder at the thought of what would have become of the Glossers had the same policies Stephen so coolly espouses – the travel ban, the radical decrease in refugees, the separation of children from their parents, and even talk of limiting citizenship for legal immigrants – been in effect.”

The Glossers’ second wave arrived in 1906, just a few years before “America first” nativists back home closed borders to Jewish refugees. As in Borisov, Hitler’s stormtroopers exterminated Jews in their Belarus town of Antopol, leaving only seven among 2,000.

“I would encourage Stephen to ask himself if the chanting, torch-bearing Nazis of Charlottesville, whose support his boss seems to court so cavalierly, do not envision a similar fate for him.”

Trump’s family came for opportunity, not asylum. His grandfather left Germany to escape the draft. His mother fled dirt-poor rural Scotland. He finagled an “Einstein visa” for his wife, whose talents included posing nude. She brought her family via the chain migration he deplores.

In 2015, a bumper year for misery, 65.3 million people had to flee violence or famine, mostly from the Middle East and Africa. Angela Merkel accepted one million in Germany, defying far-right critics. A rich country has humanitarian obligations, she said.

Five years later, a Guardian survey found Germany was better off for it. No one who reports on immigration and refugees was surprised. Some newcomers cause trouble. Most work hard, pay taxes and send money home, which helps stem the desperate human tide.

The United States, which unlike Germany has worsened refugee crises with a belligerent foreign policy over decades, took in only 152,000 in 2015. Despite worsening climate collapse and terrorism, the Trump administration capped refugee arrivals at 18,000 for fiscal year 2020.

Stephen Miller and his boss say sealed borders make America safer. Seasoned diplomats know better. People who suffer in conditions they can’t escape do not disappear. Many young people join criminal gangs or terrorist groups that target countries they grow to hate.

In Belarus, the stakes are high. If Lukashenko prevails, Putin’s push back into Europe has an important foothold, like the ground he regained in Ukraine. Countries in Africa and Latin America may be less strategic, but they crank up the heat in a world on the boil.

And in the end, it is not only about “homeland security.” Grosser makes the point in scoring off his hard-hearted nephew:

“As free Americans, and descendants of immigrants and refugees, we have the obligation to exercise our conscience by voting for candidates who will stand up for our highest national values and will not succumb to our lowest fears.”

Mort Rosenblum has reported from seven continents as Associated Press special correspondent, edited the International Herald Tribune in Paris, and written 14 books on subjects ranging from global geopolitics to chocolate. He now runs

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