At the height of the Soviet Jewry struggle, Peter Golden was living in Maplewood and was a member of Congregation Beth El in South Orange. Sylvia Orenstein, whose husband, Rabbi Jehiel Orenstein, was at the time its religious leader, was among the American Jews deeply engaged in the cause. She spoke Russian fluently, and she rallied the congregation.
In addition, Golden said, his own mother was involved in the movement to free Soviet Jewry, and when the immigrants, free at last, arrived in this area of New Jersey, “she took Russian women shopping in the grocery stores.”
Decades later, Golden has also contributed to the cause — or to preservation of its history — with the publication of O Powerful, Western Star! (Gefen Publishing), which details the intersection of the Cold War, American Jews, and the Jews of the Soviet Union.
The work, while chiefly a synthesis of the work of other historians, also includes Golden’s original interviews with the likes of Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Mikhail Gorbachev. In a wide-ranging interview on Sept. 13, Golden, a journalist and author who now lives in the Albany area, discussed with NJJN his interest in the origins of the movement and its legacy as an American foreign policy success.
Golden’s interest in the subject came out of his work on Quiet Diplomat, a biography of Michigan philanthropist Max Fisher, a major supporter of Jewish causes and the Republican Party.
“It was my first exposure to the subject matter, and I got to interview Nixon, Ford, Kissinger, and people like that,” he said. Before Fisher died in 2005, he asked Golden to write a book on Soviet Jews. “I said I’d look at it,” Golden said.
The book he ended up writing “is really about the Cold War; the story of Soviet Jews is really a subset of that,” he said.
As a result, the book opens not with the harsh treatment of refuseniks, the heated negotiations over Anatoly (now Natan) Sharansky, or the Free Soviet Jewry movement in the United States and Israel. Instead, it opens in Imperial Russia, “the land of the tsar and the Cossacks,” with a Jewish grain dealer learning of the death of Abraham Lincoln. Golden asks “why a Russian Jewish grain dealer held such a reverence for a president of the United States and why, a century after that president was laid to rest in Springfield, Ill., American Jews hurled themselves into the final battle of the Cold War.”
“The countries had a collision of cultures” going back at least to the 19th century, he said. “I wanted to go and look for the causes of the movement. My real aim was to illuminate what happened with the Jews in the Cold War.”
Golden hypothesizes that American Jews convinced themselves that they had not done enough to prevent the Holocaust and rescue European Jewry. The Soviet Jewry movement grew out of a commitment that they were not going to do the same to Jews behind the Iron Curtain.
Embarrassing the Soviets
Golden cites various historians suggesting that advocacy by a stronger, better organized, or less timid American-Jewish community could have saved one million Jews during the Holocaust. But from Golden’s perspective, “Even if we had saved one million Jews, we’d still be talking about the five million and history would be largely unchanged.”
At the same time, he argues, American political interests lined up in such a way that during the Cold War, the Soviet Jewry issue provided the United States with more leverage with which to pressure the Soviet regime. When Nixon and Kissinger declined to do so, the job was left to Ronald Reagan.
The heart of the book is the controversy and foreign policy debate surrounding the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which would link trade agreements to emigration from the Soviet Union. In Golden’s analysis, it was the first time American Jewry and the administration clashed, and Kissinger and Nixon never saw it coming.
“If it wasn’t so serious, it would be funny,” he said, referring to what he sees as a major misstep on the administration’s part. “This gentile senator and congressman” — Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson and Charles Vanik — “were pushing this bill to save Soviet Jews, and Nixon and Kissinger saw it as a challenge to their policy of detente. This whole idea of ‘don’t embarrass the Soviets’ — that was Nixon.”
By comparison, he said, Ronald Reagan and his secretary of state, George Schultz, “embarrassed the Soviets every chance [they] got, in defiance of Nixon and Kissinger.”
Ultimately, Golden said, “I believe if it weren’t for the American government, Soviet Jews never would have gotten out.”