Eight years ago, when Gal Beckerman was a student at Columbia Journalism School, he signed up for Professor Samuel Freedman’s storied book-writing class. Many of Freedman’s students have gone on to publish books with major publishing houses, telling great stories that had to be told. Beckerman found one in the story of Soviet Jews.
“I wanted to do a big, ambitious book,” said Beckerman. “I was interested in human rights and how it found its ways into the center of American foreign policy … and how Jewish communities reconstituted themselves after the Holocaust.”
Beckerman found both those themes woven into the Soviet Jewish refusenik movement. In his widely acclaimed history, “When They Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” which won a National Jewish Book Award this year, Beckerman describes how a small group of Russian and American Jewish activists brought international attention to the Soviet Union’s suppression of Jews.
Ultimately, Beckerman argues, the cause helped put human rights at the center of America’s foreign policy, bring down the Soviet Union, and galvanize Jewish American identity at a time when it was flagging. “American Jews [in the 1960s and ’70s] were happy to march for civil rights, but not for Jewish causes,” he said. “The Soviet Jewish cause combined their universal values and their particular [Jewish] ones.”
Moreover, Beckerman says, American Jews’ political activism on behalf of Soviet Jews laid the groundwork for the strength of their future Israel lobbying. “The [refusenik] movement really helped American Jews build their political muscle,” he added.
Beckerman, who is an opinion editor at The Forward, had no great personal connection to the refusenik movement, other than being Jewish. All four of his grandparents were Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust, then immigrated to Israel shortly after.
He learned about the Soviet Jewish plight at an early age. In 1989, Beckerman’s parents paired his bar mitzvah with that of a Soviet Jewish child, Maxim Yankelvich, who would have been forbidden from having one himself. The symbolic gesture stuck with Beckerman: “There was a Jewish kid in the world at that same moment, when I was having my own bar mitzvah, who was suffering. I can’t say that I wrote the book because of that, but it certainly planted the seed.”
Favorite authors: Taylor Branch, Amos Elon.
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