The struggle to save Soviet Jews – Book Review

quixotic protests for freedom eventually triumphed

By GIL TROY, Montreal Gazette, 10-23-10

Jewish  schoolchildren in Montreal demonstrate in support of  Soviet Jewry  outside the Soviet consulate in June 1978.

Jewish schoolchildren in Montreal demonstrate in support of Soviet Jewry outside the Soviet consulate in June 1978.

Photograph by: PETER BROSSEAU, GAZETTE FILE, Freelance

When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry

By Gal Beckerman

Houghton Mifflin, 608 pages, $33.95

– – –

When the Soviet secret police detained the dissident Anatoly Scharansky, one of his KGB interrogators mocked the movement to free Soviet Jewry as limited to students and housewives. Scharansky -today Natan Sharansky -a chess master constantly outwitting his tormentors, feigned surprise. The KGB provided photos of rallies. Scharansky demanded more evidence, thereby getting the KGB to update him about the grassroots protests that saved his life.

Soviet dissidents like Scharansky, along with the students and housewives the KGB disdained, star in Gal Beckerman’s compelling new book When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry. Beckerman, a young journalist, shows how scattered American and Soviet-Jewish protests in the 1950s and 1960s gradually gained momentum, until Soviet Jews’ fate became a central U.S. political issue, a diplomatic Cold War hot potato, and the symbol of “all that was repressive and evil about Soviet society.”

The movement achieved popular-culture immortality when Gilda Ratner, caricaturing a senile granny, asked on Saturday Night Live why everyone was fussing about “Soviet jewellery.” The movement achieved political immortality when the Soviet Union collapsed. “If the first half of the twentieth century gave us the ultimate example of Jews as victims of history,” Beckerman writes, “then the second half gave us -in addition to the establishment of Israel -this triumphant story, one in which Jews grabbed history and changed its course.”

To help modern readers appreciate this achievement, Beckerman illustrates how marginal the calls to grant 3 million Soviet Jews the right to emigrate first were -and how oppressive life in Communist Russia could be.

Two decades after Communism collapsed, many forget the Soviet dictatorship’s evils. Even at the time, many Western elites minimized them. In tracing the rise of the “refuseniks” -the Jews the Soviets blocked from emigrating -Beckerman catalogues the Soviets’ sins against their own citizens. Jews suffered doubly, prevented from embracing their distinct identity while nevertheless frequently targeted as different.

Anyone who deviated from the Soviet line risked harassment, imprisonment, exile, even death. Beckerman marvels: “Living in a totalitarian state, these were people who decided, almost out of nowhere, to assert an ancient identity, turn themselves into pariahs, risk everything, and become living proof of man’s capacity for bravery -all so they could be Jews.”

Many also forget how quixotic the movement abroad first was. Most Jewish leaders preferred private pleading to public protesting. Many leading Americans were too enamoured of Communism’s egalitarian aspirations or too fearful of nuclear destruction to embrace the cause. When the movement grew in the 1970s, U.S. President Richard Nixon and his powerful Secretary of State Henry Kissinger bristled as Senator Henry Jackson, backed by a growing chorus of Americans, demanded that Soviet citizens enjoy basic human rights before relations between the two nuclear superpowers improved.

Yet powerful forces galvanized the movement. American Jews were inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and sobered by their community’s failure to save European Jews during the Holocaust. When a young Holocaust survivor named Elie Wiesel published The Jews of Silence in 1966, he solidified the link, prodding America’s once-silent Jews to defend Russia’s now-silenced Jews. While wary of enraging the Soviet superpower, Israel saw 3 million Soviet Jews as a source for Zionist renewal and population growth. And within the Soviet Union, the trauma of the Holocaust, the thrill of Israel’s Six Day War victory, the lure of Jewish tradition and some human beings’ indomitable resistance to having their state crush their souls, helped propel ordinary people from conventional if constricted lives to these dissidents’ historic achievements.

Alternating his focus between the Soviet and U.S. sides of the equation, Beckerman effectively captures the movements’ parallel successes at the grassroots and the highest levels of government. But Beckerman ignores the movement’s global reach. The crusading housewives and students, lawyers and politicians, in Canada, Britain, France, Australia, and elsewhere in the West were essential. They added resources to the fight. They increased the pressure on the Soviets. And they made it harder for the Soviets to dismiss the pleas as simply another U.S. Cold War tactic.

In April 1987, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz, hosted a Passover seder for leading refuseniks at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. With a skullcap perched on his head, Shultz said: “You are in our minds; you are in our heads. … But never give up, never give up.” They didn’t -and good people throughout the world didn’t, either. Beckerman reminds us how lucky we all are that the refuseniks’ democratic and spiritual aspirations triumphed over the Soviets’ police powers.

© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette
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