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

By – September 26, 2011

In 1976, as tens of thou­sands of Jews were des­per­ate­ly try­ing to leave the Sovi­et Union, the chair of the Jew­ish Agency, Arieh Dulzin, declared, our first duty is not to save Jews; we must save only those who will go to Israel.” At the same time a num­ber of big-city Jew­ish Fed­er­a­tions in the Unit­ed States were begin­ning to lim­it the num­ber and kind of refugees they would sup­port. Only after a bar­rage of hos­tile pub­lic­i­ty, did the estab­lish­ment yield to activists as the Fed­er­a­tions’ Gen­er­al Assem­bly vot­ed to sup­port the right of Sovi­et émi­grés to live wher­ev­er they wished. It was the water­shed event in the move­ment to save Sovi­et Jewry.

Gal Beckerman’s his­to­ry of that strug­gle begins in 1963, when a few Jews in Riga began to take an active inter­est in their Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, and a Cleve­land sci­en­tist named Lou Rosen­blum read about the oppres­sion of Jews in the Sovi­et Union. One by one Beck­er­man intro­duces dozens of activists, refuseniks, and politi­cians who played roles in this sto­ry, includ­ing glimpses of peo­ple we know bet­ter from oth­er con­texts: Richard Per­le and Paul Wol­fowitz, Shlo­mo Car­lebach, Meir Kahane, Mal­colm Hoen­lein, and Cyn­thia Ozick. The sto­ries of Sovi­et Jews like Yosef Mendele­vich, Ida Nudel, Yuli Kon­charovsky, Yuli Edel­stein, and of course Natan and Avi­tal Sha­ran­sky are true pro­files in courage. Each of them comes alive on the page both in human terms and as an actor in a world-his­tor­i­cal dra­ma that reached the White House and the Krem­lin dur­ing the final years of the cold war.

These events also trans­formed the Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, as Beck­er­man astute­ly points out. The strug­gle to save Sovi­et Jews in the 1960’s marked a deci­sive shift by many Jew­ish Amer­i­cans from African-Amer­i­can civ­il rights to a specif­i­cal­ly Jew­ish cause. The suc­cess of Con­gres­sion­al lob­by­ing led to AIPAC’s immense­ly influ­en­tial role as an advo­cate for Israel on Capi­tol Hill. And the end of the Sovi­et Jew­ry cam­paign after the fall of the Sovi­et Union has left the Amer­i­can Jew­ish estab­lish­ment in search of anoth­er uni­fy­ing theme for the past two decades.

Today the chair of the Jew­ish Agency is the best known Pris­on­er of Zion, Natan Sha­ran­sky. Yuli Edel­stein, impris­oned for years because he dared to teach Hebrew, is now Israel’s Min­is­ter of Pub­lic Diplo­ma­cy and the Dias­po­ra. When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone is the best account we have of how that could and did hap­pen: vivid, com­pre­hen­sive, sym­pa­thet­ic, deeply researched, and per­cep­tive­ly analyzed.

Discussion Questions

1. Con­scious­ness of the Holo­caust played a big role in ignit­ing the Sovi­et Jew­ry move­ment in the 1960s. How did it pro­vide the emo­tion­al moti­va­tion for Amer­i­can and Sovi­et Jews? And based on the book’s descrip­tion of these two com­mu­ni­ties in the 1960s, what were the sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences of the role this ear­li­er his­to­ry played? 

2. Why, in your opin­ion, was the prospect of Jew­ish emi­gra­tion so threat­en­ing to the Soviets? 

3. The Leningrad hijack­ing fun­da­men­tal­ly changed the pro­file of the move­ment. Why do you think this was such a sem­i­nal moment? Why did this action and the Sovi­et reac­tion lead to the first sub­stan­tial emi­gra­tion in 1971

4. Dur­ing the peri­od of détente in the ear­ly 1970s, Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon and Hen­ry Kissinger both believed that Sovi­et Jew­ry, as a moral issue, should not be made part of Amer­i­can for­eign pol­i­cy. Kissinger dra­mat­i­cal­ly illus­trat­ed this when he said that even if Sovi­et Jews were put in gas cham­bers” it still wouldn’t become Amer­i­can pol­i­cy to help them. What char­ac­ter­ized Nixon and Kissinger’s approach? Why was the Sovi­et Jew­ry move­ment as a loud, vocal cause such an obsta­cle to their for­eign policy? 

5. Beck­er­man often describes the move­ment as being a con­ver­gence of uni­ver­sal and par­tic­u­lar con­cerns — and says that this was the rea­son for much of its suc­cess. What does this mean? What in the sto­ry would char­ac­ter­ize each of these impuls­es and in what ways did they come together? 

6. After read­ing the book, do you think, as Beck­er­man con­tends, that this move­ment played a role in lead­ing to the demise of the Sovi­et Union? And if so, what role did it play?

Tap­ping Into the Epic

by Gal Beckerman

Before I had any aware­ness of a Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, I knew two sto­ries very well — one a night­mare, the oth­er a fan­ta­sy, and both episodes from what could only be called the epic of twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry Jew­ish history.

The Holo­caust was intro­duced to me through my grandmother’s account of sur­viv­ing part of the war by liv­ing in a hole in the ground, where she was hid­den togeth­er with her moth­er and sis­ter and pro­tect­ed by a Pol­ish farmer. I absorbed the sto­ry the way a child would, through the hor­ri­fy­ing details — how she could only switch posi­tions every few hours, how upon emerg­ing she was blind­ed for days by her first sight of the sun, how she had to re-learn to walk again.

Then there was the sto­ry of my par­ents meet­ing in Israel at the age of 14, in Tel Aviv of the 1960s, before the Six Day War, told with nos­tal­gia for an age of inno­cence where they played all day in the streets, lived in their scouts’ uni­forms, and built bon­fires every week­end on the beach. Amos Oz says that to his mind the birth of mod­ern Hebrew occurred when, for the first time since the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, a boy and a girl said I love you” to each oth­er in the long-dead lan­guage. When I read this, I could see the boy and the girl per­fect­ly. I’m sure they were my parents.

To grow up with these sto­ries and know them before any oth­er meant that nar­ra­tive itself was always tan­gled up with some­thing that seemed to come out of the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence. It’s not hard now to see what was so attrac­tive, so irre­sistible to a sto­ry­teller about the last hun­dred years of Jew­ish his­to­ry. All the great myth­ic tropes are there — death and rebirth, rev­o­lu­tion and redemp­tion, a peo­ple so famil­iar with the weight of his­to­ry on top of them sud­den­ly feel­ing them­selves strug­gling to con­trol its direction.

I want­ed to tell the his­to­ry of the Sovi­et Jew­ry move­ment because it gave me a chance to tap into this epic and fill in a crit­i­cal piece that seemed to be miss­ing. To get from death to rebirth a cathar­sis was nec­es­sary: it became clear to me, after many years of research­ing in archives and talk­ing with hun­dreds of activists involved with the move­ment, that it was part­ly through the strug­gle of Sovi­et Jews to leave their total­i­tar­i­an empire and the effort of Amer­i­cans and Israelis to get them out that this process took place.

The sto­ry of the move­ment was one I knew about only very vague­ly when I began. It was in some ways a vic­tim of its own suc­cess — the emi­gra­tion and absorp­tion of near­ly a mil­lion and a half Jews over­took and seemed to obscure the his­to­ry of a thir­ty-year effort. Over all that time, from the ear­ly 1960s until the last days of the Cold War, the end was uncer­tain, but the strug­gle itself pro­vid­ed sus­te­nance to an Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty find­ing its own voice and to Sovi­et Jews, who three gen­er­a­tions removed from the Bol­she­vik rev­o­lu­tion were still regard­ed as a for­eign ele­ment, not allowed to inte­grate ful­ly or to leave.

Once the sto­ry had me, I was drawn in by all its many com­plex­i­ties and ten­sions. On the Amer­i­can side, there were divi­sions over whether to employ the gueril­la tac­tics of the grass­roots or to lis­ten to the estab­lish­ment demands for respon­si­ble action; whether to take into con­sid­er­a­tion the Zion­ist imper­a­tives that all Sovi­et Jews who got out be fun­neled toward Israel or remain true, first­ly, to the Amer­i­can con­cept of free­dom of move­ment; for that mat­ter, whether to con­ceive of the cause as a uni­ver­sal human rights strug­gle or as a par­tic­u­lar­is­tic Jew­ish one.

And that was just the Amer­i­cans. The activists of the Moscow and Leningrad under­ground had their own inter­nal bat­tles, and great dra­ma on their side as well. One of the high­lights of my six years of research was when I got to know the men and women who tried to car­ry out a hijack­ing in 1970 in order to escape the Sovi­et Union and pub­li­cize the prob­lems of Sovi­et Jews. They seemed to encap­su­late per­fect­ly the human ele­ment in this sto­ry, the des­per­a­tion to leave (verg­ing here on the near­ly sui­ci­dal) and the bound­less hope­ful­ness for a bet­ter, more com­plete life in Israel. Here were indi­vid­u­als will­ing to risk every­thing to chal­lenge an oppres­sive sta­tus quo and recon­nect with Jew­ish history.

Even after all the years spent work­ing on this project, I con­tin­ue to be enthralled by that epic Jew­ish expe­ri­ence. My inter­est is not just per­son­al but a func­tion, sim­ply, of being drawn back, again and again, to a great sto­ry. As opin­ion edi­tor at the For­ward, I’m engag­ing every day with the big ques­tions that trou­ble and fas­ci­nate Jews — Israel and the Mid­dle East, fears of assim­i­la­tion, ortho­doxy ver­sus moder­ni­ty, Jew­ish polit­i­cal pow­er. And I am always look­ing for a nar­ra­tive approach to talk­ing about these issues, one that links them up with the uni­ver­sal and the par­tic­u­lar. The best way I’ve found is to tell a human sto­ry, as I tried to do even when approach­ing the vast his­to­ry of the Sovi­et Jew­ry move­ment. It’s a prin­ci­ple that I know will guide me in my works to come.