The Wild Desire to Leave: On Soviet Jewry | The Nation


The Wild Desire to Leave: On Soviet Jewry

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Beckerman tends to tiptoe around some of the deeper moral and political questions that surface in his account, preferring to present things through the eyes of his protagonists. Was the analogy, for example, between the plight of Soviet Jewry and the fate of Jews under Nazi rule accurate? There can be little doubt about the Holocaust's potency as a mobilizing device, at least in the West. Yet one wonders whether its deployment in this case was symptomatic of a monolithic imagination—the same kind of imagination that insisted that Yasir Arafat was another Hitler (and therefore that talks of any kind with the PLO were unthinkable) and that the slightest willingness to negotiate with Moscow was a form of appeasement with inevitable Munich-like results. The issue is not whether it was a good thing to secure Soviet Jews' freedom to exit the USSR; that seems unassailable and should apply to all citizens of all countries. What is worth debating, however, is whether it required nothing less than the specter of the Holocaust to bring people to action on their behalf.

When They Come for Us We’ll Be Gone
The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry.
By Gal Beckerman.
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About the Author

Benjamin Nathans
Benjamin Nathans teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author of Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter...

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Why did different segments of the Soviet population experience Khrushchev’s reforms in radically different ways?

The central political event of Beckerman's narrative is the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, a provision attached to the 1974 United States Trade Act that denied most-favored-nation trading status (and the access to financial credits that goes with it) to "non-market"—that is, socialist—countries that restricted the emigration of their citizens. It was designed specifically to pressure Moscow to allow Jews and other oppressed minorities to leave the Soviet Union, and thus represented a direct assault on the carefully constructed scaffolding of détente, which was premised—at least in Nixon and Kissinger's version of it—on noninterference in the other side's domestic affairs. Enormous historical significance has been attached to Jackson-Vanik. It has been described as a decisive incursion by Congress into the executive branch's near monopoly on the making of foreign policy; as the first major example of American legislation putting universal human rights into practice through the technique of "linkage" (that is, linking relations with foreign countries to those countries' human rights records); as a catalyst of a dramatically more assertive stance by the American Jewish leadership (i.e., "the Jewish lobby"); and not least, as a "brilliant" (Beckerman's verdict) device that ultimately enabled the exodus of some 1.5 million Soviet Jews.

Remarkably, although one has to look hard to find a nonmarket economy these days, Jackson-Vanik remains in force and continues to be a source of friction in US-Russian relations. But perhaps its most powerful legacy is its influence on the lessons we draw from the American-Soviet rivalry during the cold war and the way we apply those lessons to efforts to alter the behavior of hostile states today. For it has become widely accepted orthodoxy that Jackson-Vanik worked. More than a quarter-century after the amendment's passage, a "Jackson-Vanik and Russia Fact Sheet" released by the Bush II White House declared that the amendment "has been an extraordinary success in securing freedom of emigration in the Soviet Union and its successor states." But was it?

When it was proposed by Washington Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Ohio Congressman Charles Vanik, Jackson-Vanik was intended to pressure the Kremlin to change two policies. The first was the recently announced "diploma tax," according to which would-be emigrants were required to pay exorbitant sums allegedly to compensate the Soviet state for the free education they had received (a holder of a PhD was obliged to pay as much as seven times the typical scientist's annual salary). The KGB's secret reports tracking applications for exit visas regularly noted the number of applicants with advanced degrees. One such report informed Brezhnev and the Soviet leadership that while Jews constituted less than 1 percent of the total Soviet population, "Among Jews the percentage of individuals with higher education is nine times greater than among Russians, twelve times greater than among Ukrainians and seventeen times greater than among Belorussians.... In terms of absolute numbers of people employed in scholarship and research, Jews occupy third place, after Russians and Ukrainians. Among those with PhDs they occupy second place, after Russians." Of course, substantial emigration by any segment of the Soviet population, educated or not, represented an unacceptable verdict on the great socialist utopia and carried the risk of a snowball effect on other disaffected groups. In the Jewish case, it was the specter of a massive brain drain, far more than the publicly stated concern about permitting emigration by individuals who had had access to military or state secrets, that heightened Kremlin sensitivities. An international outcry greeted the imposition of the diploma tax, which in effect turned university graduates who sought to emigrate into hostages of the state. Transcripts of Politburo discussions suggest that Jackson-Vanik deserves the lion's share of credit for persuading the Kremlin to waive the tax—which it did, quietly, in an effort to stall the amendment before it was approved by Congress.

* * *

The second and larger policy that Jackson-Vanik sought to change was the severe restriction on emigration itself. Here the available evidence—as journalist J.J. Goldberg and economist Marshall Goldman have trenchantly argued—suggests very different results. To his credit, Beckerman acknowledges that Soviet leaders, ever sensitive to perceptions of weakness, felt humiliated by Jackson's public gloating over his success in getting them to waive the diploma tax. Brezhnev was not about to let Soviet emigration policy be dictated, much less visibly dictated, by the United States. And so by the time Jackson-Vanik became law in 1974, Moscow had already pulled out of the trade agreement negotiated by Nixon and Kissinger. Jackson was left to chew on the carrot he had dangled in front of the Kremlin. From permitting a record high of 34,733 Jews to leave in 1973, the Soviet Union sharply reduced the number to 20,767 in 1974 and then further lowered it to 13,363 in 1975. Not until the end of the decade did the numbers begin to approach and then briefly surpass the previous peak (51,331 Jews were permitted to leave in 1979). But this had little to do with Jackson-Vanik: Brezhnev was trying to curry favor in the hope that Congress would ratify the SALT II arms control treaty. When SALT II tanked (and when Jimmy Carter responded to the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan with a robust arms buildup), Jewish emigration plummeted: to 9,448 in 1981, to 1,314 in 1983 and to a post-Jackson-Vanik low of 896 in 1984.

That was the year I first set foot in the Soviet Union. There I met the Lazars, a Moscow refusenik family of three. As they explained over tea and black bread in their tiny apartment, both parents had been dismissed from their jobs immediately after applying for visas two years earlier, and they were at risk of being arrested for the crime of parasitism (i.e., unemployment, which was illegal under Soviet law). Their 15-year-old daughter had lost any chance of getting into a university. All their hopes were pinned on emigrating, but they had no idea whether permission would be granted in another two years, or five, or ten. Or never.

Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika changed all that. In 1989 a record 71,005 Jews departed from the Soviet Union—among them the Lazars, who settled in Los Angeles, where their daughter eventually became a model. During the 1990s the annual number of emigrants soared to between 80,000 and 210,000. Although he acknowledges the short-term failure of Jackson-Vanik to promote Jewish emigration, in the end Beckerman seems unable to resist the triumphant narrative according to which it helped liberate more than a million Soviet Jews. In fact, the enormous exodus of the 1990s was made possible above all by the emancipation of Soviet society under Gorbachev, the economic free fall that ensued and the overtly anti-Semitic rhetoric that welled up following the lifting of censorship, producing what was then widely referred to as the "Weimar syndrome" (must every historical analogy involve Nazis?). Beckerman praises "linkage" as "a giant behavioral-conditioning project. There would be positive reinforcement for releasing Jews and negative reinforcement for treating them poorly." But neither Brezhnev nor Gorbachev was prepared to have the Soviet Union play laboratory mouse for American rational-choice theorists dressed in white coats. Linkage, when practiced between superpowers, was a two-way leash. It could just as easily encourage Moscow to do something Washington didn't like, in order to then offer to stop doing it in return for a "linked" concession.

What is probably the last mass exodus of Jews from the European continent carried the likes of Google co-founder Sergey Brin and novelist Gary Shteyngart to the United States, as well as politicians like Yuli Edelshtein, Natan Sharansky and Avigdor Lieberman and singer-songwriter Arkadii Dukhin to Israel, where the flood of "Russians" has changed the face of Israeli society. But that is a subject for another book.

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