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

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt  2010


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 1 963, 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 1960’s. 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 1960’s, 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 1970’s, 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?

Read about Gal on the ProsenPeople

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...Gal Beckerman 

Read Gal Beckerman's Posts on the Visiting Scribe

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My Other Baby

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.

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