In October 1963, a group of Cleveland rabbis signed a telegram urging President John F. Kennedy to link the sale of American wheat to the Soviet Union – a sale Kennedy had announced he would permit – to the lifting of a Soviet ban on baking matzo for Passover. The petition was organized by two Cleveland laymen, NASA engineer Lou Rosenblum and psychologist Herb Caron, who were looking for ways to call attention to the deteriorating plight of Soviet Jews. "American wheat," the telegram said, "should not become an instrument of the official Soviet policy of persecuting the Jewish minority group."
The rabbis' plea was ignored. The view of the Kennedy administration, expressed earlier that year in a memo to Assistant Secretary of State Averell Harriman, was that "formal US Government representation to the Soviet Government would not be in the best interests of Soviet Jews." American Jewish leaders, for whom Soviet Jewry was not a pressing issue, tended to agree. "It is wrong to generate too much activity on behalf of Russian Jewry," the head of the World Jewish Congress, Nahum Goldmann, told an Israeli publication, "because this could endanger the very existence of three million Jews."
One generation later, everything had changed.
When President Ronald Reagan headed to Geneva for his first summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in November 1985, support for Soviet Jews was vocal, omnipresent – and as much a White House priority as arms control. "Summit Parley Overshadowed by Rights Issue," a front-page story in The New York Times was headlined. It reported that the issue of Soviet dissidents, and especially the beleaguered Jewish "refuseniks" seeking to emigrate, "is one that President Reagan has said he will raise in the Geneva meeting."
In fact, Reagan not only raised the issue during the summit, he devoted an entire session to it. After all, he later told Morris Abram, the famed civil-rights lawyer who headed the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, if Moscow couldn't be trusted to keep its word when it came to Jewish emigration and other human rights, how could it be trusted on arms control?
In less than a quarter-century, the welfare of the Soviet Union's Jews had gone from being a topic that US presidents could safely ignore to one that the White House forcefully championed – and from a cause few American Jews had ever thought about to one that aroused and united them as no cause ever had. How that came about is, roughly speaking, half the story that Gal Beckerman tells in When They Come For Us, We'll Be Gone, his absorbing chronicle of the Soviet Jewry movement. The other half is the extraordinary epic of the Soviet Jews themselves – from the first Zionist stirrings that followed Stalin's death, through the defiance of the refuseniks in the face of totalitarian cruelty and anti-Semitism, to the great exodus of the 1990s, when more than a million Soviet Jews emigrated to Israel.
It is a sprawling saga of Cold War politics, Jewish self-awakening, and the rise of human rights as an issue in international relations. Beckerman, an experienced journalist, spent five years and interviewed more than 200 people in the course of researching this book; the result is a riveting work of reporting and a magisterial history of one of the 20th century's great dramas of liberation.
In both the US and the USSR, the struggle for Soviet Jewry began with memories of the Holocaust. When They Come For Us, We'll Be Gone opens in the Rumbuli woods outside the Latvian capital of Riga, where in 1941 the Nazis and their collaborators had systematically murdered 25,000 Jews. In the early 1960s, hundreds of Jews began gathering on weekends to clean and landscape the mass graves, plant flowers, and turn Rumbuli into a proper memorial to the victims.
It was at Rumbuli that Yosef Mendelevich and other Jews born after World War II first began to develop a sense of Jewish pride. From a handful of older Jews, some of whom had been active in Zionist youth groups during the prewar years when Latvia was independent, they learned Hebrew songs, picked up something of Jewish history, and were exposed to clandestine writings about Israel.
By 1965, Mendelevich had organized a small band of Zionist teens. They had come together "out of an emotional love for our people," he wrote in the group's manifesto, and were determined "to work toward the self-awareness of Jewish nationality."
The Kremlin's restriction on Jewish life was spiritual strangulation.
Five thousand miles away in Cleveland, Rosenblum and Caron were animated by a different kind of Holocaust remembrance. They were filled with a "bitter mix of guilt, shame, and anger" as they learned of the failure of American Jews to rise up or cry out as European Jewry was annihilated. Now it was the Jews of the Soviet Union who were at risk – an eye-opening article in Foreign Affairs described the Kremlin's restrictions on Jewish life as "spiritual strangulation" – and Rosenblum and Caron felt a powerful urge to act. When the local Jewish federation wouldn't take the issue seriously, they launched a campaign of their own. The Cleveland Committee on Soviet Anti-Semitism, born in 1963, became the nation's first Soviet Jewry activist organization.
From these modest beginnings developed a movement that would eventually open the first rip in the Soviet empire and teach American Jews how to flex their political muscle. Beckerman's narrative alternates between America and the Soviet Union; one thread recounts the deepening of Jewish resistance behind the Iron Curtain, while the other shows how Soviet Jewry activism grew so powerful in the West.
At first, the American protesters knew next to nothing about the besieged Jews they were trying to help. "What was most striking about the fervor of those students who trudged through Central Park," Beckerman writes about an early protest organized by Yaakov Birnbaum, who founded the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry in 1964, is how little they knew about the actual 'plight of the Soviet Jew,' as they referred to their cause. Soviet Jews themselves were still unseen and unheard. So the passion and activity of these young American Jews was largely self-motivated and self-directed.
But Soviet Jews didn't remain an abstraction for long. In 1966, Elie Wiesel published The Jews of Silence, his emotional eyewitness account of the precariousness and fear that characterized Soviet Jewish life. "After reading this book," Max Hayward wrote in Commentary, "nobody will be able to deny that the state of Russian Jewry remains a legitimate cause for concern in the outside world."
Then came Israel's astounding victory in the Six Day War, which fired thousands of Soviet Jews with a connection to their Jewishness – an emotional attachment to the Jewish people – they had never before felt. For many, it also drove home the reality that in the Soviet Union, which required them to carry internal passports stamped "Jewish," they would never be more than second-class citizens. Some began to claim the right to leave.
Yasha Kazakov, a 20-year-old university student, was the first to publicly renounce his Soviet citizenship and insist on going to Israel. "I was born a Jew and I want to live out my life as a Jew," he wrote. "I demand to be freed from the humiliation of being considered a citizen of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics." Kazakov managed to get his letter smuggled to the West; no sooner did stories about him appear in The Washington Post and on Voice of America than he received an exit visa and was given two weeks to leave the country.
Upon asserting his Jewish identity, the KGB locked him in a mental institution.
Not nearly as fortunate was Boris Kochubievsky, a factory worker in Kiev. "He knew little about what it meant to be a Jew, and even less about Israel," Beckerman writes. But it infuriated him to hear Soviet officials denounce Israelis as criminals and Nazis, and he embraced his Jewish identity with ardor. "In this country, I belong to no one," he said. "I want to go somewhere where I belong." Unlike Kazakov, however, Kochubievsky was not given an exit visa. The KGB locked him for months in a mental institution. Then he was put on trial, convicted of slandering the USSR, and sentenced to three years in the Gulag.
But the Jewish hunger to leave intensified. Growing numbers of Jews took the fateful step of applying for an exit visa, a decision that usually meant losing one's job or being expelled from school. As more and more stories appeared in the Western press, as more and more letters and pleas for help were smuggled out, the cause of Soviet Jewry stopped being an abstract fight for freedom. It became instead an intensely personal campaign to save real people with real names and faces.
Rosenblum, whose grassroots Cleveland organization would grow into the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, began developing ways for American Jews to communicate directly with individual refuseniks – mailing cards to them before Passover and Rosh Hashana, for example, or telephoning them with words of encouragement. "One conversation with a Jew in the Soviet Union who described the hardship of his life made an abstract issue exceedingly real," Beckerman writes. "Heard over a crackling wire, an Old World Russian accent – which might remind an American Jew of his grandfather – did more for the cause than any policy paper or rally."
In time, the Soviet Jewry struggle attracted individuals from every part of American Jewish life. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Meir Kahane, Shlomo Carlebach, Jacob Javits, Arthur Goldberg, and Edgar Bronfman are only some of those who play a role in Beckerman's account. But sympathy for the refuseniks went far beyond the Jewish community. In 1970, the KGB foiled a plan by Mendelevich and 15 other Jews to steal a small plane from an airport near Leningrad and fly it to freedom in Sweden. The plotters were arrested before they even boarded the plane, and in the staged trials that followed, the two leaders of the group – Eduard Kuznetsov and Mark Dymshits – were sentenced to death.
International opinion was outraged by the verdict. "Italian longshoremen in Genoa went on a 24-hour strike," Beckerman relates.
The president of Switzerland made an impassioned plea. Protests took place in every major city, including one in Rome that interrupted the pope's weekly address from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica. Schoolchildren in Stockholm marched with torches through the streets... Nobel Prize winners and congresspeople sent telegrams and sponsored resolutions. The Washington Post titled its lead editorial on the sentencing "Murder." ... Salvador Allende, the Socialist leader of Chile, demanded leniency as a "highly humanitarian gesture."
In the face of such an outcry, the Soviets were forced to retreat. The sentences of Kuznetsov and Dymshits were commuted to 15 years.
To a reader in 2011, when it often seems as if international opinion exists only to censure Israel and disparage Zionism, it is startling to be reminded that just a few decades ago there was earnest global support for the rights of "prisoners of Zion" yearning to live in a Jewish state. Equally striking to a reader today is how robustly the cause of Soviet Jewry was taken up by the left. Christopher Wren, a New York Times reporter, likened the refuseniks' struggle to the American civil rights movement. When the Soviet Union imposed crushing exit fees on Jews trying to emigrate, Senator George McGovern – "not exactly known for harsh condemnations of the Kremlin," Beckerman notes dryly – denounced the Soviets for "holding these people hostages of the state." In 1978, as Avital Sharansky embarked on a whirlwind speaking tour on behalf of her husband Anatoly, who had been sentenced to 13 years in a labor camp, those who rallied to her cause included even "Hanoi Jane" Fonda.
What ultimately forced the Soviets to open the gates was the transformation of human rights into a central issue of Cold War politics. Beckerman tells the tale of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which by law linked trade with the United States to the right of free emigration. Despite strong opposition from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who viewed Jackson-Vanik as a threat to détente, the measure passed Congress overwhelmingly. It was propelled by grassroots Jewish pressure that "had never been mobilized so strategically before."
Even Jimmy Carter raised Sharansky's case with the Soviet foreign minister.
A year later, Moscow signed the Helsinki Accords, which ratified the Soviet-dominated map of Eastern Europe, but mandated in return that fundamental human rights be protected. Before long, Jewish refuseniks and other dissidents were forming Helsinki Watch groups to document Soviet violations of the universal principles they had agreed to – and funneling the information to reporters and activists in the West. By the time Moscow launched a crackdown, arresting Helsinki Watch monitors and putting them on trial, Soviet Jewry and human rights had become almost synonymous. Jimmy Carter emphasized human rights in his inaugural address, and raised Sharansky's case with the Soviet foreign minister.
At last, with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the Soviet Jewry movement became a strategic weapon in the Cold War endgame. At his first meeting with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, writes Beckerman, "Reagan talked for two hours, almost entirely about human rights, about the problems of refuseniks and prisoners of Zion." On his desk, Reagan kept a bracelet engraved with the name of Yosef Begun, an underground Hebrew teacher who had been convicted of "anti-Soviet agitation" and sentenced to a labor camp in Siberia. Secretary of State George Shultz pushed hard too, warning Moscow that not only trade but even the arms-control negotiations Gorbachev wanted would depend on allowing emigration. As one of Gorbachev's advisors wrote in his diary at the time, "We have to resolve the Jewish question, the most burning among human-rights problems."
Cracking the Curtain
Was the struggle to save the Soviet Jews a Jewish cause – or a human cause? A recurring theme in When They Come For Us We'll Be Gone is the attempt to balance the universal with the particular – to pursue the basic liberties to which the refuseniks, like all human beings, were entitled, without minimizing the claim they were making as Jews. The Soviet Jewry movement was always tugged in both directions. It invoked the moral authority of Exodus – "Let My People Go" – no less than that of Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own."
Perhaps the Kremlin refused for so long to allow the Jews their freedom out of a recognition that the exodus wouldn't end with them. With surpassing courage and faith, men and women like Sharansky, Mendelevich, and Begun insisted that Jews had the right to live in a Jewish homeland – and when in the end they cracked open the Iron Curtain, countless others followed in their wake. "Everyone wanted an 'exodus' from the Soviet Union," Beckerman observes. As this rich, revealing, and compelling history makes clear, the struggle for Soviet Jewry was nothing less than an existential challenge to the Soviet empire itself.
This article originally appeared in Commentary, March 2011