Halfway through his monumental new history of the struggle for Soviet Jewry, Gal Beckerman slips in a phrase that could stand as an epigraph for the entire movement: “the unique euphoria of being part of a Manichaean struggle.”
When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry is an exhaustive and spookily self-assured work by a writer for the Forward who can’t be more than 30 (and if he’s any younger, I’ll kill myself). I was supposedly reporting on this stuff as it happened, but on every page there’s an anecdote or insight that makes me realize how little I knew or understood about Jewish life in Russia, the diplomatic maneuverings in this country, and the various tensions among American-Jewish groups. And Beckerman writes like a dream.
It’s a complex story, and Beckerman deftly juggles all the elements. He reminds us of the ideological splits among the refuseniks themselves, with one faction (the politiki) whose members were eager to confront the Soviets and alert the West, and another (the kulturniki) who were committed to raising Jewish consciousness in their native USSR. In writing about the Jackson-Vanik amendment, Beckerman simultaneously resurrects the era of detente, recalls the birth of real American-Jewish power, and even hints at — in the person of one Richard Perle, the uncompromising aide to the fierce cold warrior Scoop Jackson — the ideological chickens that would come home to roost a generation later.
Yet it’s a complex story wrapped (at first, anyway) around a crystalline pair of ideas: the evilness of the Soviet empire, and the purity of the Jewish cause. You sense the “unique euphoria” that animates figures as different as Natan Sharansky, Meir Kahane, and Lou Rosenblum. Sharansky and Kahane you’re familiar with; Rosenblum deserves, and gets, his own close-up as the founder of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews.
A scientist working for NASA in Cleveland, Rosenblum would gather a few friends from shul to discuss Jewish history. This was the early 1960s, when intellectuals like Irving Howe would lament how little American Jews knew or cared about their own origins, let alone the lives of the two to three million Soviet Jews. Rosenblum’s conscience, already pricked by the Holocaust and the writings of Jabotinsky, was stirred when he began to read some of the first accounts of Jewish life, such as it was, behind the Iron Curtain.
Where the Jewish establishment advised caution in dealing with the Soviets, Rosenblum demanded confrontation. While the big groups preferred to work behind the scenes, Rosenblum envisioned “a federation of groups from different cities that worked together to fulfill the task the establishment was shirking.” In Beckerman’s telling, Rosenblum’s organizational moxie transformed small cells of activists into a grassroots movement that prodded the Jewish establishment, and even the Israelis, into action.
At the same time, Soviet Jews kept their cause alive under appalling repression through underground journals, surreptitious Hebrew lessons, and samizdat copies of the novel Exodus.
It’s hard to imagine a cause today that would inspire such acts of chutzpah or bravery. The Soviet Jewry movement provides myriad examples of the “strong-tie” activism recently celebrated by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell. “Strong-tie” activism relies on networks of small groups whose members share a personal connection to the cause and who also recognize “a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority.”
In a sense, this could be the definition of Jewish “peoplehood,” a word that has come into vogue exactly at the moment when Jews have lost a unifying cause or movement. There’s a paradox built into our memories of the Soviet Jewry struggle: While recognizing the brutal physical and psychological toll of Soviet repression, many of us miss a time when the Jewish mission appeared so clear. We revel in the freedoms won by the soldiers in the fight for Soviet Jewry, but lament our loss of a common purpose.
“Nothing since has united American Jewry in quite the same way, drawing together both right and left,” writes Beckerman, alluding both to the entire movement and the famed Washington rally of December 1987. “In fact, at the very moment that American Jews were finding common cause in Washington, an intifada was beginning in the streets of Gaza.”
The point is clear: Even Israel has failed to serve as a mass rallying point. Polls of American Jews show a steady decline in personal attachment to the Jewish state. Our communal discourse is as likely to focus on our debates over Israel and its policies as on the things we agree on.
In the absence of “Manichaean struggles,” we invent them. The rage for demonizing all things Islam fires the blood, but it also leads us to adopt the very traits — bigotry and intolerance — that we condemn in our enemies. And in the absence of anti-Semitism as a determining factor in Jewish life, we exaggerate the power of those who remain unreconstructed.
The story of Soviet Jewry is thrilling and inspiring, and has no shortage of heroes. Our challenge is to figure out how to capture some of the passion, heroism, and unity of the movement in a time of freedom.