• Review
By – May 22, 2014

David Bezmozgis’s Jews are haunt­ed by the trau­mas and indig­ni­ties of mod­ern his­to­ry. Drawn with psy­cho­log­i­cal nuance, his­tor­i­cal acu­ity, and deep com­pas­sion tinged with irony — in the tra­di­tion of great sto­ry­tellers like Isaac Babel and Bernard Mala­mud — Bezmozgis’s Jews tend to find them­selves on the edge of his­to­ry: dis­placed, in tran­sit, suit­cas­es already packed, seek­ing spir­i­tu­al and phys­i­cal asylum.

In his rich­ly-imag­ined new nov­el, The Betray­ers, Bez­mozgis focus­es on a major chap­ter in recent Jew­ish polit­i­cal and social his­to­ry: the ordeal expe­ri­enced by refuseniks” — Jews who sought to emi­grate from the Sovi­et Union but were refused” exit by the implaca­ble Russ­ian State. (As Gal Beck­er­man shows in his har­row­ing account When They Come for Us, We’ll be Gone, begin­ning in the 1970s thou­sands of refuseniks peti­tioned to leave, but were inevitably harassed and threat­ened by the KGB.)

Prob­a­bly the most famous refusenik is Natan Sha­ran­sky, now an Israeli cit­i­zen and vocal polit­i­cal actor on the far Right. In The Betray­ers, Bez­mozgis con­jures a Shcha­ranksy-like char­ac­ter in the fig­ure of Baruch (néee Boris) Kotler, a high-rank­ing Israeli Cab­i­net min­is­ter in his ear­ly six­ties who sur­vived thir­teen years in a Sovi­et prison. After win­ning his release through a 98-day hunger strike and the sheer pow­er of his will to resist, the world’s most illus­tri­ous refusenik” land­ed in Israel, where he was lion­ized as a Bib­li­cal hero, the rein­car­na­tion of King David himself. 

As The Betray­ers opens, we learn that after twen­ty-five years of refusenik celebri­ty and as leader of his Russ­ian immi­grant par­ty,” a dis­si­dent cham­pi­on,” Kotler has pub­licly voiced his dis­sent regard­ing the government’s pol­i­cy of forced removal of Ortho­dox set­tlers in the West Bank. As a result, Kotler has been named a defec­tor; his refusal of alle­giance to the Prime Min­is­ter and, by exten­sion, to the Israeli State rep­re­sents the first of many lay­ers of betray­al” Bez­mozgis explores in this res­o­nant polit­i­cal novel.pol

Kotler’s betray­al also has a per­son­al dimen­sion. He has fled to the resort town of Yal­ta in the Crimea accom­pa­nied by Leo­ra, his young mis­tress. They are in shame­ful flight from Israel, where pho­tos expos­ing their affair are now spread on the front page of every news­pa­per in the land, much to the cha­grin of Kotler’s wife, daugh­ter, and son, Ben­zion, who is cur­rent­ly serv­ing in the Israeli army. 

The day before his hasty depar­ture, Kotler was black­mailed by a gov­ern­ment emis­sary with evi­dence of the affair: the offi­cial will not release the pho­tos if Kotler revers­es his posi­tion and pub­licly announces his sup­port for the removal pol­i­cy. True to his deep­est char­ac­ter, shaped by his refusenik ordeal, Baruch refus­es to cave in to this polit­i­cal threat, which uncan­ni­ly recalls the KGB tac­tics of his Russ­ian past. If you or the peo­ple you rep­re­sent think that I can be intim­i­dat­ed by this sort of KGB thug­gery,” he says, you are mis­tak­en.” In this respect, The Betray­ers car­ries a sub­stan­tial charge of social crit­i­cism, in this case lev­eled at the Jew­ish State.

In draw­ing the com­plex fig­ure of Baruch Kotler, a betray­er — and, as it turns out — among the betrayed, Bez­mozgis aims to deep­en our under­stand­ing of the sor­did psy­chic and polit­i­cal land­scape of refusenik-era Rus­sia and its tan­gled, iron­ic lega­cies in the present.

The pow­er­ful dra­ma of The Betray­ers unfolds dur­ing Kotler’s twen­ty-four-hour sojourn — or adul­ter­ous flight — to Yal­ta, once filled with Jew­ish vaca­tion­ers, and now home to an aging rem­nant of Jews strug­gling to sur­vive in the cor­rupt post-Sovi­et era. By acci­dent, the jour­ney brings Kotler face-to-face with his own betray­er from when he was a young polit­i­cal activist in Moscow. This is Chaim Tankile­vitch, now a weary and dis­heart­ened old man, tor­ment­ed body and soul,” who rents out a por­tion of his home in the sum­mer to tourists — Baruch and Leo­ra among them. For the prin­ci­pled dis­si­dent Kotler, how­ev­er, the charged scene of recog­ni­tion makes his knees buck­le as he under­goes a shat­ter­ing return of the repressed: he sensed the near­ness of his old tor­men­tors;” see­ing Tankile­vich sum­mons the cold men­ace of the KGB.” Shift­ing from present to past, we learn that Tankile­vich had been a KGB infor­mant who, dur­ing the refusenik era, false­ly denounced Kotler (his own room­mate, no less) in the Sovi­et press and was instru­men­tal as a State wit­ness in Kotler’s con­vic­tion” and prison sen­tence. [Tankile­vich appears, in this respect, to be mod­eled on the real-life Sanya Lipavsky, who pub­licly accused Sha­ran­sky in the Sovi­et news­pa­per Izves­tia.] Now a bro­ken man scrap­ing by, forced to trav­el every Sat­ur­day three hours each way to a syn­a­gogue in Sim­fer­opol to help a dod­der­ing group of old Jews main­tain a minyan, Tankile­vich is still not whol­ly abject. Despite the indig­ni­ties he suf­fers in the new Rus­sia, where casu­al anti-Semi­tism — the pen­e­trat­ing look of con­tempt” — injures his Jew­ish soul, Tankile­vich, like many Jews dan­gling on the edge, has man­aged to hang on. Bez­mozgis feels pro­found com­pas­sion for this betray­er, for Tankile­vich is a sur­vivor. Above all, Tankile­vich feels the pal­pa­ble claims of affil­i­a­tion. Observ­ing his fel­low aging Shab­bat wor­ship­pers, he reflects: His­to­ry had laid its heavy hand on them, but they had bur­rowed, elud­ed, and remained. One need­ed only to look at their faces — expres­sive Jew­ish faces — to see that they had known the depths of life.”

In The Betray­ers, shame­ful his­to­ry and guilty mem­o­ries con­tin­ue to haunt, rup­tur­ing uncan­ni­ly into the present. Each a vic­tim and a betray­er, each black­mailed and betrayed by a Jew-hat­ing Sovi­et state and by fel­low Jews, Kotler and Tankile­vich, once room­mates, now ene­mies, under­go a soul-wrench­ing encounter with their pasts. In this impres­sive new nov­el, David Bez­mozgis deep­ens his exca­va­tion of Jew­ish his­to­ry and mem­o­ry. He remains an artist with a Jew­ish heart, com­pelled to paint, in words, the range of expres­sive Jew­ish faces.” 

Relat­ed Content:

Inter­view

Read Don­ald Weber’s inter­view with David Bez­mozgis here.

Dis­cus­sions Questions

1. One of the novel’s open­ing epigraphs is the fol­low­ing quote from David Raziel: There can be no strug­gle for nation­al lib­er­a­tion with­out sac­ri­fices and repres­sion, death in bat­tle and the exe­cu­tion of mar­tyrs. And noth­ing on earth can with­stand the pow­er of self-sac­ri­fice.” Are there mar­tyrs in this nov­el? If so, who and why? 

2. At the begin­ning of the nov­el, Ba­ruch has the oppor­tu­ni­ty to pro­tect his fam­i­ly from the pub­lic embarrass­ment of his affair by with­draw­ing his oppo­si­tion to the Prime Minister’s plan regard­ing the West Bank settle­ments. But Baruch refus­es to yield to black­mail. He explains his deci­sion to his daugh­ter, Daf­na, by say­ing that there are mat­ters of prin­ci­ple where you can­not com­pro­mise. Under any cir­cum­stances. If I’d compro­mised it would have been worse.” Do you agree with Baruch’s deci­sion to remain loy­al to his moral ideals over his fam­i­ly? Why do you think he made that deci­sion? Would you have done the same? Discuss.

3. Dis­cuss the rela­tion­ship between Baruch and Leo­ra. How does their rela­tion­ship evolve through­out the novel?

4. Dis­cuss the female char­ac­ters in The Betray­ers, such as Leo­ra, Svet­lana, Miri­am, and Nina Semonov­na. Do you res­onate with any in par­tic­u­lar? How are they dif­fer­ent from one anoth­er? Similar?

5. What role does deci­sion-mak­ing play in the char­ac­ters’ lives? What do their deci­sions (for exam­ple, Tankilevich’s deci­sion to betray Baruch, Benzion’s deci­sion to go against orders) demon­strate about the impor­tance of retain­ing a sense of inde­pen­dence and self dur­ing times of dif­fi­cul­ty? Dis­cuss the dif­fi­cult deci­sions made through­out the nov­el and how/​why the char­ac­ters make decisions. 

6. While speak­ing to Ben­zion, Baruch says, If you think there’s no choice, look hard­er. There is always a choice. A third way if not a fourth. Whether we have the strength to take those choic­es is anoth­er mat­ter.” Do you agree that we always have a choice? Did Tankile­vich have a choice? Did Baruch?

7. Dis­cuss the role of fate in The Betray­ers. Do you believe in fate? Is the reunion between Baruch and Tankile­vich an instance of fate or coincidence?

8. Through­out his polit­i­cal life, Baruch has remained stead­fast­ly loy­al to the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. But when his affair with Leo­ra is exposed, he be­comes some­thing of a joke to the Israeli cit­i­zens he serves. Do you think this is just? Should the per­son­al lives of politi­cians play a role in how we judge them? Dis­cuss how the expo­sure affect­ed Baruch and Leo­ra. How does each char­ac­ter react to the situation? 

9. Dis­cuss Tankile­vich. Does your per­cep­tion of him change through­out the nov­el? Do you think he has paid for his sins? If so, does this mean that Baruch is oblig­at­ed to for­give him? What does a per­son gain from with­hold­ing (or grant­i­ng) forgiveness? 

10. Baruch asserts that Tankile­vich is not a vil­lain, stat­ing, I don’t blame him. He is an ordi­nary man who was ensnared in a vil­lain­ous sys­tem.” Do you blame Tankile­vich? Is there a dan­ger in assert­ing that ordi­nary peo­ple who become ensnared in vil­lain­ous sys­tems should not be blamed? What oth­er vil­lain­ous sys­tems” through­out his­to­ry have ensnared ordi­nary peo­ple? Do you think these peo­ple are blame­less, or should they be held moral­ly respon­sible? Discuss. 

11. Baruch believes that one can­not change his or her char­ac­ter, and that just as there are peo­ple in this world who are impart­ed with phys­i­cal or intel­lectual gifts, there are those who are impart­ed with moral gifts. Peo­ple who are inher­ent­ly moral. Peo­ple who have a clear sense of jus­tice and can­not, under any cir­cum­stances, sub­vert it.” Do you agree that cer­tain peo­ple are inher­ent­ly moral? Are oth­ers inher­ent­ly immoral? Have Baruch’s actions dem­onstrated that he is inher­ent­ly moral?

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He lives in Amherst, MA.

Discussion Questions