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Last Exit

In Gal Beckerman’s telling, the story of the Soviet Jewry movement becomes one of modern Jewish history’s great dramas

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An iconic photo of the most famous refusenik activists, taken in 1976: Front row, left to right: Vitaly Rubin, Anatoly Shcharansky, Ida Nudel, and Alexander Lerner. Second row: Vladimir Slepak, Lev Ovsishcher, Alexander Druk, Yosef Beilin, and Dina Beilin. (Beit Hatfutsot Archive)
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Back in the USSR

Gal Beckerman recalls the Struggle for Soviet Jewry, which reinvigorated a tradition of Jewish political engagement

One way of thinking about 20th-century Jewish history is as the steady depopulation of Eastern Europe, the heartland of Ashkenazi Jewry since the Middle Ages. In 1880, the Jewish population of the region was close to 7 million, representing more than 80 percent of the world’s Jews; today, Russia is home to just 200,000 Jews, and Ukraine another 80,000. This dramatic decline did not take place steadily or easily, but in three historical convulsions. The first was the huge wave of emigration that lasted until World War I, turning America into the world’s largest Jewish community and planting the seeds of Jewish settlement in Palestine. The second, of course, was the Holocaust, which killed 6 million European Jews, most of them from Eastern European countries under German occupation—Russia, Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic States, Hungary, Romania.

Both of these stories are extremely well known to Jews today—they are our twin origin myths, one a story of great good fortune, the other an unfathomable tragedy. But there was also a third stage to the Eastern European Jewish exodus, comparable in scale to the first two, yet much less central to our historical imagination. In 1945, after all, there were still some 2 million Jews in the Soviet Union—the world’s second-largest Jewish population, after the United States. Today, almost all those Jews and their descendants live in Israel or America. But as Gal Beckerman shows in When They Come For Us We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), it was anything but guaranteed that this huge remnant of Eastern European Jewry would survive as Jews. At times, it seemed possible they would not survive at all.

Beckerman’s riveting and important book shows that it took the grass-roots efforts of Jews around the world, as well as the power of the American government, to bring this story to a happy ending. If the movement to “save Soviet Jewry” is not well remembered, Beckerman writes, it is because “it is a victim of its own success.” Now that he has told the story so well, however, it will surely take its rightful place as one of the greatest dramas in modern Jewish history.

Beckerman is a reporter at The Forward, and When They Come For Us We’ll Be Gone is, in the first place, an impressive work of reporting. The story he chose to tell spans four decades and three continents: from the 1950s through the 1980s, activists in the USSR, the United States, and Israel were all working for the cause of Soviet Jewry. What’s more, their campaign intersected with Cold War politics at the highest level: The struggle ended only with the fall of the Soviet Union and may even have played a minor role in causing that fall. This means that Beckerman has to braid together hundreds of individual stories, large and small. The characters in this book include Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger and Scoop Jackson and Richard Perle, Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov and Mikhail Gorbachev, Anatoly and Natasha Shcharansky, Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner.

But we also hear about less famous figures, whom Beckerman brings dramatically to life. The book opens in 1963 with Yosef Mendelevich, a Latvian Jewish teenager who joins an unofficial pilgrimage to Rumbuli, the wooded area outside Riga where the Nazis massacred 25,000 Jews in 1941. The mass grave was unmarked and untended, and a group of local Jews took it upon themselves to turn it into a memorial. It was Mendelevich’s first public Jewish act, and it would lead to a quarter-century of activism on behalf of Soviet Jewry—including a long stretch in prison. That was his punishment for taking part in one of the most dramatic and unlikely episodes in Beckerman’s epic: the attempted hijacking of a small plane, in 1970, in order to take 16 Jewish activists to freedom in Sweden. It was a mad undertaking, and the plot was broken up by the KGB before the plane was even boarded. But it sent a clear message to the world about the desperation of the refuseniks, Soviet Jews who had been denied permission to emigrate to Israel.

The link between the memory of the Holocaust and concern about the future of Soviet Jews, so pronounced in Mendelevich’s story, can also be seen in the American half of Beckerman’s tale. Lou Rosenbaum, a NASA engineer living in Cleveland, was politicized by reading Perfidy, Ben Hecht’s indictment of “the leaders of world Jewry” for their passivity in the face of the Holocaust. To Rosenbaum and Herb Caron, a local psychologist, guilt over what they perceived as American Jewish inaction—combined with admiration for the right-wing Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky—led them, in the early 1960s, to interest themselves in the plight of Soviet Jews. Here was a cause that would allow American Jews to redeem themselves by asserting themselves. It is no coincidence that the organization Rosenbaum and Caron founded—the Cleveland Committee on Soviet Anti-Semitism, the nucleus of what would become the nationwide Union of Councils for Soviet Jews—was conceived as a goad to the American Jewish establishment, a militant grassroots alternative to the cautious American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry.

In general, Beckerman sees the growing concern for Soviet Jewry in the 1960s as part of a generational shift in American Jewish identity. For Jews alienated by the militant later stages of the Civil Rights Movement, the cause of Soviet Jewry offered another way to fight for human rights, this time in a specifically Jewish context. For Jews troubled by the blandness and assimilation of postwar suburban life, it offered a new, more active and public Jewish identity. For young people navigating the counterculture of the 1960s, it offered a mass movement with charismatic leaders like Yaakov Birnbaum, the eccentric, unworldly founder of Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, and Shlomo Carlebach, the “singing, dancing hippie rabbi” who composed the movement’s anthem, “Am Yisrael Chai.” Then there was Meir Kahane, whose quasi-fascist Jewish Defense League switched from driving “around black Brooklyn neighborhoods swinging chains out their windows and yelling through megaphones about the schvartzes” to picketing the Soviet consulate in Manhattan and vandalizing the offices of TASS and Aeroflot. Finally, JDL thugs bombed the office of Sol Hurok, a Jewish impresario whose crime was to have done business with the Bolshoi Ballet. (The sole victim of that bombing was a Jewish secretary from Long Island.)

Cleverly, Beckerman counterpoints Kahane’s self-aggrandizing and reckless violence with the deeply disciplined resistance of the Soviet Jews themselves. To become a refusenik, Beckerman shows, was to make a frightening leap outside the boundaries of Soviet society. The process of emigrating was turned into a diabolical ordeal, built around a set of catch-22s. To get a visa to go to Israel, you needed a character reference from your employer; but when you told your employer why you needed the reference, you were certain to be fired; and once you were fired, you could be sent to jail for the crime of “parasitism.” Anyone who had ever worked for a scientific or defense agency—and a good number of Soviet Jews were scientists and engineers—could be refused a visa on grounds of national security. In time, the Soviets introduced an “education tax,” requiring anyone with a higher education to reimburse the state before emigrating—the fees were prohibitively high and functioned as an effective ban. And the most vocal activists, like Shcharansky, could be given long jail terms for conspiring against the state.

That so many Jews persisted to trying to emigrate to Israel, despite the obstacles, was a testament both to their heroic resolve and to the awfulness of conditions in the USSR. Yet among Soviet Jews, too, there were divisions and rivalries. To the politiki, the best way to serve the Jewish community was to fight the state for the right to emigrate. To the kulturniki, it seemed more urgent to instill Jewish identity, for instance by teaching Hebrew, and if possible to get the state to accommodate these activities. (Only a tiny handful of the refuseniks were interested in becoming religious Jews. Ironically, Beckerman notes, they were treated more leniently by the state, probably because the USSR could not take Orthodox Judaism seriously as a threat.)

And during the unpredictable periods when the USSR decided to let out thousands of Jews, it became clear that many of them did not actually want to go to Israel at all. Once they got to Vienna, where Soviet refugees were processed, increasing numbers renounced their Israeli visas and chose to go to America, instead—to the consternation of the Israelis, who looked at Russian Jewry as an essential demographic resource. But when the Israeli government tried to force the so-called “dropouts” to go to Israel, the reaction from American Jewry was indignant. Wasn’t the whole campaign for Soviet Jewry based on the idea that freedom of emigration was a human right? And if the Israelis really thought that a Jew was obligated to live in Israel, what did that imply about American Jews themselves?

As Beckerman shows, these cross-cutting tensions—between religious and secular Jews, Americans and Soviets and Israelis, establishment and grassroots, even between the U.S. Congress and the State Department—never went away. But they also never stopped the movement from pressing towards its goal. To Beckerman, in fact, one of the most important lessons of the “struggle for Soviet Jewry” is that American Jews should not be embarrassed to use their voice, and their influence, on behalf of specifically Jewish goals. In “this triumphant story,” he concludes, “Jews grabbed history and changed its course.” Today, when American Jews seem “too fractured to ever rally together again,” When They Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone is a timely reminder of how much can be achieved by a community united in the pursuit of justice.

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Dovid Eliezrie says:

Beckerman outstanding book is creates a deeper understanding of a crucial story in modern Jewish history. Full of great detail its a wonderful read. Sill it is handicapped by a historical tunnel vision. He ignores the largest Jewish underground in Russia operated by Chabad. Its as if an author did a book on the car industry, only wrote about Ford and ignored GM.

Chabad efforts spanned decades, operating schools, synagogues, mikvahs etc. It orchestrated the escape from Russia of a thousand Jews in 1947. Acquired exit visas for great numbers under Soviet rule, even before the Six Day War. Shipped tons of food, packages without public fanfare. Dispatched numerous emissaries on many secret missions that reached out to Russian Jews during Communist years and also worked closely with Liskat Hakesher, the Israeli secret agency.

Beckerman does not address the most controversial historical question, if the public demonstrations had a negative or positive effect? Many leaders, led by the Lubavitcher Rebbe (the only one with real organisation in Russia) felt that the public confrontations did little to advance the cause of freedom for Soviet Jews. No question they raised Jewish identity in the US but did they really help Soviet Jews. Recent historical documentation seems to vindicate this view that in many cases their impact was counterproductive.

Gal Beckerman has made an important contribution to the understanding of this period and should be lauded. Sadly he falls into the trap that other liberal historians do, of only see half the story. No book can be written about Soviet Jewry without serious attention to the largest Jewish group that remained vibrant during Communism and the only one that survived 70 years of harsh rule. The Chabad underground has emerged from the shadows to create a vast renaissance of Russian Jewry that has rebuilt in hundreds of communities Jewish life.

    I know this is late, but perhaps the Chabad network was more fiction and hype than fact, especially when most of the Chassidim fled after WW2. Sure, a few remained in Samarkand, but they were more interested in clandestine business than helping fellow Jews. Chabad really is a footnote in Jewish history, and only its own largely misguided followers believe its legends. I am a former Lubavitcher and I understand the Lubavitch PR machine very well. The so-called network was a product of that PR machine, and serious historians disregard anything coming out of Chabad and its minions.

Perhaps this is a unique experience to those who are my age – but as a 32 yr-old, the fight to “save Soviet Jewry” was the defining Jewish cause of my childhood. Sharansky was a hero, and I can still hear his voice echoing across the Washington Mall as I stood with my family and community at the age of 8 in the freezing cold winter air listening to him, a symbol of freedom for my time. We marched in rallies, wrote letters, and sang songs. But it is true that only 10-15 years later, this story was already forgotten. When I was 21, and a Jewish summer camp counselor, Sharansky stopped at the camp for a visit. My peers and I were tripping over ourselves to shake the hand of the man who had meant so much to us as kids. Our campers did not understand. He was already an Israeli politician by then, and to them, that’s what he represented. I look forward to reading this book!

Kahane may have been a racist but he went to prison on behalf of Soviet Jewry which is more than anyone at the Tablet has ever done. You people are wishy-washing watered POS.

Kahane may have been a racist but he went to prison on behalf of Soviet Jewry which is more than anyone at the Tablet has ever done. You people are wishy-washy watered-down POS.

Whether he went to prison for Soviet Jewry or not, Kahana was a venomous, murderous fascist. At a rally held against his appearance in Teaneck, NJ, he yelled at those of us who were holding up signs saying “Kahana’s philosophy is anti-Torah” the epithet “I’ll get you next”. Make no bones about it. Had he risen to power, he would have first transferred the Arabs, then transferred all of those who disagreed with him.

fred lapides says:

Dear Mr Webedrman:

and what, pray tell, have you done that outdoes what Tablet folks have not done…what makes you not wish-washy?

Kahane may have been a fascist, but he was ours. and I would have
fo;;oed him to some extent.

It is strange that almost everybody wring about about 20th-century Jewish history forgets that the Jewish depopulation of Eastern Europe happened not in three, but four historical convulsions.
Immediately after the creation of Israel, the Jewish immigration from the communist countries of Eastern Europe wasn’t only easy, but encouraged. Soviets hoped that new immigrants will form a new communist entity in the Middle East. This hope was based on the assumption that Soviet Jewry was dedicated to international communist ideas more than to the creation of the Jewish National State.
This immigration of seasoned by the World War II Jewish Soviet officers and well educated Jewish Soviet scientists helped in the creation of the Jewish state and in the very successful defense of the Jewish State from the “welcoming neighbors”.
When Moscow communists realized, that the despite of their hope, the Jewish National State was created, not the Jewish Soviet Satellite, they change the immigration policies…

Scharansky was and still is one of my personal heroes. He faced down an empire and made them blink first. And he did it non-violently. The refusenik story should definitely be better known. Kudos to the author and others for writing about it.

Regarding the sentence: “In 1945, after all, there were still some 2 million Jews in the Soviet Union”; there was a joke among Russian Jews in the nineteen seventies:
Brezhnev asks chief of KGB Andropov: “Comrade Andropov, could you tell me, how many Jews live in our country?”
“Yes, I can” – answers Andropov – “According to our data around 2 million. Why did you ask, comrade Brezhnev?”
“Well, I was thinking – if we will let them go, how many of them will leave Soviet Union in your opinion?” – asks Brezhnev.
“I guess between five and six million” – answers Andropov.

Toby Perl Freilich says:

There’s also an excellent documentary film by Laura Bialis called “Refuseniks” on this subject. It brings the characters and the movement to life. Highly recommended.

Shalom Freedman says:

I look forward to reading this book. It is correct to say that this was a great redemptive chapter in modern Jewish life. The Jews of Silence could have been lost completely as Jews. They were not thanks to the work of thousands of heroes many of whose names are not known.

Actually one of the reasons the latest “exodus” story is being muted is because the latest wave, in the US and Israel, are predominantly right-leaning – which is an embarrassment for the Jewish mainstream. In America, they vote Republican, in Israel, they overwhelmingly support Yisrael Beiteinu. Have you guys ever tried to figure out this phenomenon? After all demographically we should be as liberal as you guys: we are mostly college-educated, live in big cities, mostly secular… When I came to the States in 1990, I had little understanding of American politics (other than adoring Reagan, but that was common in educated circles of the SU of the time). But after a few years in the country, I have come to clearly see that it is conservatives that represent my vision of America as a decent place. And practically all of those “heroes” of resistance, like Scharansky, Bukovsky, Saharov et. al., Jewish or not, have/had the same outlook. Can it be that we cherish freedom a little more than you do, and also that, after a lifetime under an extremely corrupt regime, we hate to see elements of it in our new and beloved country? And, finally, we can clearly see what “side of the aisle” the new antisemitic threat is coming from?

Bill Corr says:

Ilya makes a valid point; increasingly, the ‘Left’ / Liberal-Left in the USA, as in Europe, at best dislikes and at worst detests Israel and is mawkishly sympathetic to those who would seek to destroy Israel.

Witness the nincompoop Jimmy Carter and his nonsensical writings and speeches.

In the USA, the Republicans are more dependable friends of the Israeli entity than are the Democrats.

Is that too hard to understand?

Indeed, seems to me that American Jews have lost their main Jewish attribute: it is an ability to think. “My parents were lefties and voted for democrats. Therefore I am the lefty and vote for democrats.” There is nothing Jewish in this statement – in the past Jews were famous for rising above banality.

There is an error in Mr. Kirsch’s first sentence. Eastern Europe was not “the heartland of Ashkenazi Jewry since the Middle Ages.” By the time of the First Crusade in 1096, there were perhaps 20,000 Ashkenazi Jews living in all of Germany. Together with a few thousand Ashkenazi Jews in northern France, they comprised a mere 3 percent of all the Jews on earth. The other 97 percent were Sephardic Jews who lived in Muslim-controlled lands. With the Crusades came anti-Semitic persecution, and this sent the Ashkenazim eastward, into Poland. When the first Jewish settlements were established in Eastern Europe around 1100, they were extremely small, scattered, and isolated. As late as 1300, there were a mere 5,000 Jews in all of Poland and Lithuania. Only after 1650 did the Ashkenazim of Eastern Europe experience the exponential population explosion that made them more numerous than the Sephardim and the culturally dominant force that they are today.

There are a lot of pros about this book. It has become the definitive study of the Soviet Jewry movement. There are a few glaring short comings:
1. The total absence of any information about Chabad. The Lubavitch movement ran the largest and most clandestine support movement for Soviet Jewry. They worked inside and outside the system. To ignore their work reveals a gapping hole in this book.
2. It seemed the information on Rabbi Kahane and JDL came mostly from Yossi Klein’s rather weak book. Frankly, there were many people in JDL besides Klein and it doesn’t look like any of them were interviewed. Yossi was at best a marginal player in JDL. There were many more people involved the author could have interviewed.
3. To a much smaller degree, the work of Rabbi Elazar Meir Teitz of Elizabeth New Jersey was also ignored. Teitz was the only leader to get along with the Soviet Regime and they permitted him to send religious articles and siddurim into the former USSR.
Again, it’s hard to say this is the definitive book while ignoring these three issues. Of the three, the Chabad issue is the most obvious.

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Last Exit

In Gal Beckerman’s telling, the story of the Soviet Jewry movement becomes one of modern Jewish history’s great dramas

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