Refuseniks' rough road to Israel

By Anne Applebaum
Sunday, November 21, 2010


The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry

By Gal Beckerman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 598 pp. $30

Anne Applebaum is a columnist for The Washington Post.

For American students such as myself, 1985 was a good year to be in Leningrad. The Soviet Union was in an odd moment of transition. Some people still wouldn't talk to strangers on the street, while others were desperate to meet foreigners. One encountered Soviet pop musicians who said things like "Do you know David Bowie? I met him last year," as well as artists who gave raucous parties and intellectuals who served tea in book-lined apartments.

Most eager of all, though, were the Soviet Jews. I knew a group of them, most of whom had applied to emigrate to Israel and had been turned down: They were "refuseniks," some of the would-be emigres who had by then become a cause celebre in superpower diplomacy. I went to a refusenik wedding at the Palace of Marriages and to a secret Jewish ceremony afterward, where there was a chuppah and Hebrew songs were sung. At the time, this was highly radical dissident activity.

In the years that followed, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the refuseniks left the U.S.S.R. and were forgotten. In "When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone," a fresh, surprising and exceedingly well-researched book, Gal Beckerman retells their story. Or rather, he retells two stories: that of the Soviet Jews who made their religion and their desire to emigrate to Israel into a protest movement, and that of the American Jews who championed their cause. Alternating chapters between Russia and the United States, Beckerman shows how the two groups developed in a strange symbiosis, even while knowing very little about each other.

Their relationship changed both groups profoundly. Beckerman believes, in fact, that advocacy for Soviet Jewry "taught American Jews how to lobby." Before the American Jewish community coalesced around the emigration issue, its leaders had been wary of transforming their money and numbers into political clout. The need to save Soviet Jews, Beckerman argues - not the need to support Israel - taught American Jews how to use the tools that are so familiar today, from "targeting local congresspeople to asserting influence on the Hill."

It's an unexpected thesis, and completely convincing. Beckerman shows that the movement did not arise out of the blue but was rather the product of the events of the 1960s: Jewish participation in civil rights marches, the Adolf Eichmann war crimes trial, the Broadway debut of "Fiddler on the Roof" and the Six Day War among them. In the early days, there was Israeli input, too. A special department of the Mossad offered seed money to the first lobbying groups and even had a couple of paid agents. But the groundswell of American popular opinion, fueled by thousands of ordinary synagogues and a few fanatical activists - among them the repugnant Meir Kahane - eventually left the Israelis behind.

The growing self-consciousness of the Soviet Jews also had its roots in this particular historical moment: the political thaw that followed Stalin's death, the growth of the Soviet human rights movement and the institutionalization of Soviet anti-Semitism. Beckerman tells the stories of several Soviet Jewish activists, more than one of whom were radicalized by the public denunciations of Israel that followed the Six Day War. Having not thought of themselves as particularly Jewish before, they were offended by the language used about Israel and Jews who had, to the delight of many, successfully repelled the Soviet-backed Arab states once again.

Over time, both groups taught themselves to help each other. Like the rest of the dissident movement, activist Soviet Jews learned how to document the repression used against them and to get their reports out of the country. American Jews learned, in turn, how to beam these facts back into the U.S.S.R. on Radio Liberty, as well as how to present them to Congress, the news media and the White House. For years they pounded away at the advocates of realpolitik - Nixon and Kissinger among them - who wanted U.S.-Soviet relations to focus on arms and trade, not human rights.

In 1974, they won. That was the year that saw the passage of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, legislation that linked Soviet trade deals to Jewish emigration. Sponsored by Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a non-Jewish politician who had made this issue his own, it forced the White House to establish links between human rights violations and wider diplomatic issues. After the amendment passed, U.S.-Soviet relations were never the same. Both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan embraced human rights debates as a central part of the superpower relationship, something no previous presidents had done.

After the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, the movement disappeared, a happy victim of its own success. In the subsequent decade, some 1 million Jews emigrated from the Soviet Union to Israel. Beckerman wants to ensure that the story of this epic struggle isn't forgotten, and I hope that, with this excellent book, he succeeds.

Anne Applebaum is a columnist for The Washington Post.

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