Inside An ‘Epic Struggle’
Tue, 11/16/2010
Special To The JewishWeek
Gal Beckerman tells how the Soviet Jewry movement grew into a major foreign policy success.
Gal Beckerman tells how the Soviet Jewry movement grew into a major foreign policy success.

The campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry — the “Soviet Jewry Movement,” as it became known — has been the topic of any number of books over the past decade and more. The story of how the “struggle” on behalf of the Jews of the Soviet Union became a “movement” parallels that of the other great “movement” of the 20th century, civil rights. Indeed, the very title of Gal Beckerman’s “When They Come for Us We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), is a lyric from a Negro spiritual taken up by the civil rights movement, one with clear echoes not only of the Holocaust but of civil rights.

Beckerman’s chronicle is cleverly evocative of both the distant past of Europe — Stalinism, the Holocaust — and the recent past of America. Indeed, the subtext of “When They Come for Us” is that of the profound change from the “quietism” that marked the Jewish experience of the past to the activism of the second half of the 20th century.

There have been other books chronicling the narrative of Soviet Jewry movement, notably Henry L. Feingold’s “Silent No More: Saving the Jews of Russia, The American Jewish Effort, 1967-1989,” Murray Friedman and Albert D. Chernin’s “A Second Exodus: The American Movement to free Soviet Jewry,” and Fred Lazin’s “The Struggle for Soviet Jewry in American Politics.”

Each of these books helped shape the contours of the debate over the movement. Feingold’s thesis is straightforward: Soviet Jewry was the major Jewish foreign-policy success of the post-war era — or of any era. But Feingold does not bring forth in detail the fascinating debates on tactics that characterized the movement, as do the essays that appear in the book edited by Friedman and Chernin in their book; nor does it detail the breadth and depth of Soviet persecution of Jews. Lazin’s book, for its part, was weak; more’s the pity, for it was the one book devoted exclusively to an exploration of the dispute —indeed conflict — between the Israelis and Americans over “Whither the emigrants?” in which the Israelis, at the end of the day, prevailed.

Beckerman’s substantial book — and substantial it is; it weighs in at 600 pages — both fills the gaps in the previous efforts and connects the dots in an elusive history. It chronicles the early role of the Israelis; the dilemmas facing American Jews (“We are civil-rights liberals — or are we? Why Soviet Jews? Is it Jewish self-interest?” And so on ...); the role of governmental officials on both sides of the political aisle; the activism of the clergy; and the cooperation, and more important, the fault lines between the American Jewish organizational structures that developed around the “epic struggle.” Thanks to Beckerman, at long last there is a coherence to this history.

Beckerman takes the historical-chronological approach in his narrative, but while the historical narrative is the steel framework of the book’s structure, the brickwork is the tale of activism. The thematic conceit of “When They Come for Us” is twofold: first, the early Jewish activism in the Soviet Union was, with American Jews pushed by the Israelis, paralleled in the United States; and second, the movement was nothing less than revolutionary in American Jewish life. The Soviet Jewry movement, together with the Six-Day War in 1967, informed an agenda that for the first time was a parochial “Jewish” agenda for American Jews.

There was, to be sure, a vigorous debate within the American Jewish community over the wisdom of an aggressive posture on this matter. After all, 1963 was not 2003 or even 1993, by which time American Jewry was entirely secure in its dealings on public-policy matters, and Beckerman’s discussion of these dynamics is good, even as his story misses something. For example, on the question of the balance of activism and organizational apathy, it is important to recall that the conflicts between the establishment organizations — the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, NJCRAC (the umbrella agency for public affairs), the Council of Jewish Federations, the Presidents Conference, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and many others — had their antecedents in the 1970s and indeed in the very origins of the movement in the 1960s. This important nuance is missing in “When They Come for Us.”

One arena of the inter-organizational cholent in which Beckerman is not entirely sure-footed is the early activities of one of the more activist groups, Jacob Birnbaum’s Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ). Beckerman seems to conflate the activities of the SSSJ with those of the other activist group, the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews (UCSJ). Despite SSSJ’s wide-ranging activity, its seminal work, unlike that of the UCSJ, was in building a mass grassroots consciousness in New York. Birnbaum correctly understood that New York, which after all housed the central administrative and policy-making instrumentalities of American Jewry, was key to the movement. The SSSJ and the Union of Councils did not think and act as one, as Beckerman implies; goals were similar, ideologies and resultant tactics were very different.

For example, on the “neshirah” (“drop-out,” Soviet Jews arriving in Israel, only to leave for the U.S.) question, one that bedeviled the community for years, the UCSJ insisted on freedom of immigration, period. The SSSJ’s position was more nuanced: in principle SSSJ agreed with free immigration, but did nevertheless lay greater emphasis on the need for aliyah.

And, important in discussing the relationship between the Israelis and the activist organizations, Beckerman suggests that neither the SSSJ nor the Union of Councils understood the key role played by Nehemia Levanon, the Israeli head of the Lishkah, Israel’s secret Soviet Jewry operation, who in some ways was the architect of the movement. The two activists groups understood Levanon’s role very well, indeed.

Far more important, though, is where Beckerman does get it right, and that is throughout the book when it comes to the dynamics of the Jewish organizational world. Beckerman does not fall into the trap that has ensnared many a scholar and journalist of the American Jewish experience. Sadly, most who address issues of public policy as processed by Jewish communal organizations have a tin ear when it comes to the question of “Who does what — and to whom — and why?” Beckerman is sure-footed indeed when it comes to these dynamics. He skillfully parses the often-complex interactions between and within national and local and international agencies; between umbrella organizations and their constituents — a key issue when it came to Soviet Jewry; and, most important, between the Israelis and American Jewry.

On this last, among the strongest pages in the book are those that address neshirah, long the bugaboo of Israelis and American Jewish leadership; it confounded the relationship between a number of American groups as well. The issue is complicated, to be sure, and it is neatly handled by Beckerman.

“When They Come for Us” will be a standard text about the Soviet-Jewry movement for scholars, students, and general readers alike. The archival research and interview data alone — to say nothing of the wonderful stories the author is moved to tell — are worth the price of admission.