Monday, April 4, 2011

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

In 1987, I travelled with about 250,000 others to Washington DC for the rally to demand that Gorbachev release the Jews held in the Soviet Union, the Refuseniks.  For decades, Jews in the USSR were not permitted to practice their religion or to leave the country.  The process of obtaining an exit visa was expensive, oppressive and often a dead end.  Instead, when Jews asked for the right to leave, they often lost their jobs immediately and cut off from society.  Within the Soviet Union, they formed an underground community of Refuseniks, protesting their oppression.

In the 1980s, my brother, like many Jewish kids at the time, had a "twin" for his bar mitzvah, a Refusenik who became part of the ceremony that day.  Many of us wore metal bands on our wrists with the name of a Refusenik.  It was all an effort to raise awareness about these prisoners of conscience.

Until I read Gal Beckerman's new book, When They Come For Us We'll Be Gone, I had no idea about the depth of the history of this important movement.  The Soviet Jewry movement was in many ways a response by American Jews to their failure to act in the face of the German atrocities of the 1930s and 1940s.  It was the embodiment of "Never Again."  Starting in the 1960s, a small group of activists in Cleveland began raising awareness about the plight of the Soviet Jews.  It was the first time American Jews flexed their political muscle in the United States.  And, it was a very difficult issue because it was intertwined with the foreign policy issue of the day -- the Soviet Union, the United State's opponent in the Cold War.  Different forces within the Jewish community fought to find a way -- quiet diplomacy, peaceful protests, attacks on Soviet targets.  Beckerman's study addresses many of the key moments and players in the history of the movement, from Rabbi Meir Kahane to Natan Sharansky to Senator Jackson.  The efforts of the Jewish community ultimately found key supporters in the US governement and for the first time in US foreign policy history, the Cold War politics of detente bent to address a question of human rights.

Gal Beckerman, a writer for the Forward, has written a carefully researched, detail laden book, which is beautifully narrated and highly readable.  For his efforts, Beckerman won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award.  This is an important study and well worth reading.

Radio interview with Beckerman here.

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