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


The Wild Desire to Leave: On Soviet Jewry

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Leonid Brezhnev had a problem. "Zionism" was complicating plans for his historic first visit to the United States in June 1973 to meet with President Nixon. At a Politburo session in March he asked his comrades why such a fuss was being made about Soviet Jewry. "Our whole policy on the Jewish question is formulated by Dymshits alone," Brezhnev insisted, "so you can't say we're keeping the Jews down. Maybe we need to exercise our brains a little on this one?" Veniamin Dymshits, deputy chair of the Council of Ministers and the highest-ranking Jew in the Soviet government, hardly had any answers. Two years earlier he had written the following in a memorandum to the Communist Party's Central Committee:

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...

Also by the Author

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

Zionist propaganda presents figures in the tens of thousands for the number of families who allegedly wish to emigrate to Israel. It is difficult to believe this, but the question arises: has anyone tried to investigate the details, on location, regarding the people who have submitted applications to leave? Who on earth are they? Why, on the basis of what information and whose propaganda, have they come to this wild desire to leave the Soviet Union for a capitalist country fighting with the Arabs on behalf of foreign interests?

The animating forces in the lives of Soviet Jews were indeed a puzzle. In the aggregate, Soviet Jews were spectacularly successful, outperforming all of the USSR's many ethnic groups, including Russians, whether the benchmark was higher education, residence in desirable urban centers like Moscow and Leningrad, entrance into prestigious occupations or prominence in high-status pursuits from filmmaking to physics. Yet behind hundreds of thousands of Jewish success stories loomed a collective loss of language and culture, a complex outcome of both self-Russification and suppression of the Jewish inheritance by the Soviet regime. By the middle of the twentieth century, moreover, what had been the world's first anti-anti-Semitic state, the country most responsible for crushing the Nazis, was engaged in its own state-sponsored persecution of those it branded "cosmopolitans" and "Zionists." By the time of Brezhnev's rise to power in the late 1960s, the USSR's affirmative action policies had caught up with the Jews, effectively putting a halt to, and in some cases reversing, their meteoric rise. Like its czarist predecessor, the Soviet government decided to limit Jewish access to institutions of higher education and white-collar professions—the major difference being that Soviet quotas were kept secret, thereby fueling rumors and uncertainty among a generation of Jews whose hopes of matching their parents' achievements were quickly fading.

In his wide-ranging and engagingly written first book, When They Come for Us We'll Be Gone, Gal Beckerman answers many of Brezhnev's and Dymshits's questions. The wild desire to leave the Soviet Union for Israel first emerged among Jews not in Moscow and Leningrad but in Riga, the capital of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the former czarist territories that had enjoyed a brief period of independence following the Russian Revolution, only to be re-annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II. In the early 1960s, with scarcely two decades under Soviet rule, Jews in Riga were far more likely to retain Yiddish or Hebrew and to be familiar with Jewish traditions than were their counterparts in Russia proper. If "Zionist propaganda" influenced them, it was in the form of texts left over from the interwar period by figures like the militant Zionist Revisionist Vladimir Jabotinsky.

More than any other event, it was the June 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors—the latter using weapons supplied by their patron, the USSR—that cast into sharp relief the contradiction between Soviet and Jewish interests. Israel's dramatic victory in that war catalyzed a more assertive ethnic pride among Jews worldwide, not least in the Soviet Union. But the emergence there of a Jewish national movement was inescapably connected to longer-term trends within Soviet society. The intelligentsia of other ethnic groups, whether in Ukraine, Georgia or Lithuania, were starting to push back against Russification, even as nationalist Russian intellectuals were beginning to grumble about the Sovietizing (mostly by Jews, they claimed) of Russian culture. And like some of their counterparts in the broader dissident movement, more than a few of the early leaders of the Jewish national revival rebelled against a generation of fervent communist parents. For Vladimir Slepak, named in honor of Lenin, the turning point came when his father defended Stalin's assault on Jewish doctors. Decades later, when news of Slepak's decision to apply for an Israeli visa reached his father, the elderly Solomon Slepak, ever the old Bolshevik, declared his son an "enemy of the people."

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Beckerman is equally interested in the American Jewish campaign to promote Soviet Jewish emigration and in the relationship across the cold war divide between two cohorts of Jews, many of whose grandparents had been neighbors in the shtetls of czarist Russia (indeed, Solomon Slepak had briefly immigrated to the United States before returning to Russia to answer the call of the revolution). One of the most striking features of the early activists on the American side was that their idealism was shaped by their own circumstances as much as by those of their distant cousins in the USSR, about whom they knew relatively little (not surprising, given the secretive nature of Soviet society). As the historian Peter Novick has noted, early appeals on behalf of oppressed Soviet Jews offered a valuable opportunity to dissociate Jews from communism in the public mind. They also provided a vicarious outlet for anxieties about declining religious observance among American Jews. Let Them Pray, declared one sign at a 1964 protest rally in front of the Soviet mission to the United Nations in New York, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the majority of Soviet Jews had no idea how to pray and probably no interest in doing so. The campaign for Soviet Jewry gave American Jews a moral cause all their own, something they increasingly sought as the rise of black power gradually pushed them to the margins of the civil rights movement. The struggle on behalf of Soviet Jews borrowed heavily from the repertory of '60s-era protest, including from the black power movement. By 1970 Meir Kahane, the thuggish leader of the Jewish Defense League, was sporting such clever slogans as Up Against the Wall, Mother Russia! while his followers would greet one another with the raised-fist black power salute.

The most powerful motive of all, Beckerman shows, was the desire to give substance to the post-Holocaust mantra "Never again," a chance at expiation for those torn by guilt over American Jewry's inaction while the Nazis slaughtered 6 million of their co-religionists in Europe. As the theologian and civil rights activist Abraham Joshua Heschel put it in 1963, "The six million are no more. Now three million face spiritual extinction." It was this moral imperative that eventually brought together the hitherto overly cautious American Jewish establishment and grassroots activists in a remarkably coordinated public campaign. At its peak, the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews could claim 50,000 members across the country and the ability to attract a quarter of a million supporters to rallies in Washington and New York. Person-to-person techniques like phone calls between American and Soviet Jews and visits by Jewish tourists to the Soviet Union—both made easier by the declining cost of global communication—had a profound impact on thousands of citizens. "One conversation with a Jew in the Soviet Union who described the hardship of his life," writes Beckerman, "made an abstract issue exceedingly real. 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." By the mid-'70s, Soviet Jewish emigration was front-page news, a central theme of the cold war and the emerging global rhetoric of human rights. Even Emily Litella, the frumpy editorialist immortalized by Gilda Radner on Saturday Night Live, wanted to know: "What's all this fuss I hear about saving Soviet jewelry?" Brezhnev could relate.

* * *

Shifting the mise-en-scène back and forth between the United States and the USSR in almost cinematic fashion, Beckerman shows himself to be an artful practitioner of what academic historians call the "new international history," an approach that emphasizes transnational movements and institutions operating above and below the state-to-state relations that are the stuff of traditional diplomatic history. When They Come for Us We'll Be Gone demonstrates how fruitful such an approach can be for Jewish history, in which a transnational diaspora is a near constant. The two communities of Jewish activists, American and Soviet, learned a good deal from each other. Refuseniks—those who had applied and been turned down for permission to leave the USSR—learned to stage sit-ins while wearing yellow Stars of David, a media-savvy technique previously unheard of in the Soviet setting. American Jews learned how porous the USSR was behind the fortresslike facade and regularly smuggled books, letters, ritual objects and Jewish samizdat in and out of the country. Both sides were coming to appreciate how inept the Soviet regime was in matters of public relations—a skill rarely mastered by those obsessed with the cultivation of secrecy—and how vital public relations were to a struggle that came to be cast in the language of human rights. As Brezhnev put it to his Politburo comrades, "Zionism is making fools of us."

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