You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation


When They Come for Us We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry
By Gal Beckerman
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 598 pp., $30)

By the standards of the 1960s, the founding demonstration of the Soviet Jewry movement was hardly notable. On May 1, 1964, a thousand students gathered across from the Soviet mission to the United Nations in Manhattan to protest a Soviet ban on baking matzo and other anti-Jewish measures. Compared to demonstrators for the far better known causes of the time, they were a tame lot. No one blocked traffic or scuffled with police. Instead, protesters marched in a circle so orderly that one reporter commented on how refreshingly responsible these young people were, which was damning praise for a movement aspiring to change history.

Yet that is precisely the process that was set in motion by the May Day demonstration. The struggle to free Soviet Jewry would become one of history’s most successful protest movements, a sustained quarter-century-long campaign that lost none of its fervor and encompassed ever-widening circles of participants. Though the movement failed to persuade the Soviet Union to permit the free baking of matzo, it went on to fulfill its most improbable goal: forcing open the Iron Curtain and restoring to the Jewish people several million Jews marked by the Kremlin for coerced assimilation. In the process, American Jewry discovered its political power and its spiritual vitality, as a once-timid community learned to become a vigorous advocate of Jewish interests. This was the pre-history of the élan that American Jewry acquired in the wake of the Six Day War a few years later.

The movement’s significance transcends its impact on Jewish history. In the mid-’70s, Congress adopted the JacksonVanik amendment linking trade credits for the Soviet Union to its Jewish emigration policy. By mobilizing Congress to override a reluctant White House, the movement helped to establish the principle that human rights supersede national sovereignty, that democracies are morally bound to intervene in the internal affairs of dictatorships. The Soviet Jewry movement in America was also a milestone in modern humanitarian politics.

And, according to Gal Beckerman’s superb and likely definitive narrative of the Soviet Jewry struggle, the movement deserves credit even for helping to hasten the fall of the Soviet Union. Deftly moving between the Soviet Union and the United States, the two main arenas of the struggle, Beckerman shows how Jewish activists on one side of the Iron Curtain emboldened Jewish activists on the other. The more risks Soviet Jews took in challenging their government, the more American Jews intensified their campaign, in turn further encouraging Soviet Jews, who initiated acts unprecedented for Soviet citizens, such as sit-ins at government offices. The “refuseniks,” as Jews denied exit visas were known, created the Soviet Union’s only mass dissident movement that spanned the USSR, and the vigorous support of Jews abroad provided a measure of immunity, ensuring that refuseniks would not become anonymous and therefore extinguishable targets. By weakening the capacity of the Soviet system to instill fear, the movement eroded the self-confidence of Soviet leaders. “Zionism is making us stupid,” Beckerman quotes Leonid Brezhnev complaining to his Politburo. In effect, the Kremlin was confronted with a bleak choice: either renew Stalinist-era repression or concede defeat. Soviet leaders tried to respond with a third, and more ambiguous, approach: allow some refuseniks to emigrate while jailing others and keeping still others in limbo. That process failed because every exit visa pried from the Kremlin only convinced activists to intensify the pressure.

By any realistic measure, the movement’s chances of success were minimal. How would a handful of students in New York influence the world’s most powerful totalitarian empire? Would they even manage to rouse American Jewry? There was, after all, little tradition of American Jewish activism, at least not for Jewish causes. Most American Jews greeted the founding of the movement with skepticism or indifference. The established Jewish organizations preferred sporadic action to an ongoing campaign to save Soviet Jewry. The ultra-Orthodox—who had been wrong about every Jewish rescue and defense effort of the twentieth century—were predictably hostile, insisting that activism would only provoke the Kremlin’s anger and harm Soviet Jews.

And did Soviet Jews even want to be saved? Several generations had grown up without the most minimal Jewish education. The Soviet regime had declared war on memory, banning Jewish schools, books, publications. (The lone Yiddish-language magazine, Sovietish Heimland, or Soviet Homeland, was exactly what its title suggested.) The handful of synagogues that had not been shut down were controlled by informers to prevent any but the elderly from worshipping there. In those early years there was one tantalizing hint of Jewish rebellion, word of which reached the West: the gathering at the last remaining Moscow synagogue of thousands of young people who came every year on the festival of Simchat Torah to dance and to sing Jewish songs whose words they scarcely knew. But that apparently was an aberration, the last protest of a dying people.

The strategy for the American movement was provided by Yaakov Birnbaum, an Orthodox Jew from England with a Vandyke beard and a Panama hat. The grandson of Nathan Birnbaum, who coined the term “Zionism” and then abandoned Jewish nationalism for ultraOrthodoxy, Birnbaum was a similarly restless soul who had worked with Holocaust survivors and with North African Jewish refugees in France. He arrived in New York in 1964 and, at the age of thirty-seven, founded what would become the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, which led the movement in its early years and sponsored that first May Day protest.

Beckerman’s portrayal of Birnbaum as a slightly hysterical figure is one of the few false notes in his book. Birnbaum, whom I knew in those years, was indeed a very intense man; but he was at the same time a visionary and a sober political analyst. His intuition was that the Soviet Union’s economic failures left it dependent on American trade and vulnerable to pressure on the Jewish issue. While Beckerman credits Birnbaum with initiating the street protests for Soviet Jewry, in fact he did much more. Birnbaum articulated the strategy that would turn a peripheral movement of students into a political force shaping Soviet-American relations. The first stage would be to inspire young American Jews with a Jewish cause; and they in turn would pressure the Jewish establishment, which alone had the resources to mobilize the Jewish community for a serious protest movement. Finally an aroused American Jewry would pressure Washington into linking trade with the Soviet Union to concessions on their treatment of the Jews. It would take a quarter of a century, concluded Birnbaum, for the fight to be won. All his predictions were fulfilled.

Shortly after the May Day demonstration, I joined the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry and for the next decade the movement became the center of my life. (I play a role in Beckerman’s narrative.) I joined in part because of shame for Jewish passivity during the Holocaust—not the supposed “sheep to the slaughter” passivity of the victims, but the failure of American Jews to attempt to rescue them. And now American Jews were failing to rescue the survivors stranded in the Soviet Union. When Elie Wiesel published The Jews of Silence, an account of his journey among Soviet Jews, the Student Struggle responded with a button that said, “Are We the Jews of Silence?” Shame created a desperate optimism: we were not going to lose more millions of Jews.

The Student Struggle was a threadbare organization of a few dozen activists without a budget. It was headquartered in a condemned building near Columbia University; leaflets, printed on both sides of the page to save paper, were piled in the bathtub and the dumbwaiter. Sometimes there was no money for ink to run the mimeograph machine. We turned scarcity into a virtue, holding rallies in small halls and then issuing press releases boasting of overflow crowds. We held a rally at lunchtime in the Garment Center and the newspapers reported an attendance of thousands, unaware that most were curious passersby briefly stopping at our sound truck. To the chagrin of the Jewish establishment, leading politicians attended our protests.

Meanwhile, unknown to us in the West, a Zionist underground in the Soviet Union was forming around Holocaust commemoration. It began in the Rumbuli forest near Riga, where thousands of Jews were buried in mass graves. Attempts to mark the site were thwarted by the authorities, and Rumbuli became a place of defiant pilgrimage. Resisting the suppression of Holocaust memory became a catalyst for rebellion against the untenable position of the Soviet Jews, denied any positive Jewish identity but forbidden, because of state and popular anti-Semitism, entirely or smoothly to assimilate.

Still, the decisive influence on Soviet Jews was not the Holocaust. It was the state of Israel. The wound gave way to pride: the Six Day War turned tens of thousands of Soviet men and women of Jewish origin into identifying Jews openly alienated from Soviet society and seeking to emigrate. Like other Jews around the world, Soviet Jews experienced the whole emotional trajectory: anxiety for Israel’s survival in the weeks before the war, then relief and exultation at the astonishing victory. But for Soviet Jews, routinely subjected to taunts about Jewish cowardice (“Ivan fought at the front,” went one popular Russian saying about World War II, “while Abram hid in Tashkent”), Israel’s military prowess meant something more: that the anti-Semites were wrong. Young Jews in Moscow greeted each other by placing a hand over one eye, simulating the eyepatch of Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. Two days after the war, a twenty-year-old Moscow student named Yasha Kazakov wrote a letter to the Kremlin renouncing his Soviet citizenship and declaring himself a citizen of Israel in absentia. “I demand to be freed from the humiliation of being considered a citizen of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” he wrote.

That unprecedented letter—what sane person would draw the KGB’s attention by renouncing citizenship of a country that had no intention of letting him leave?—was smuggled abroad and excerpted in The Washington Post. Immediately afterward, Kazakov was given a visa to Israel. (Kazakov Hebraicized his name to Kedmi and went on to fight in the Yom Kippur War in a tank with Ehud Barak, and later became head of the government’s secret office dealing with Soviet Jewry.) Kazakov’s daring and his success validated two of Birnbaum’s intuitions: that a spark of Jewishness remained among young Soviet Jews, and that exposure in the West would free them.

Hundreds of letters followed—from a Kiev engineer named Boris Kochubievsky, who was ready to leave “to the homeland of my ancestors, even if it means going on foot”; from eighteen families in Soviet Georgia vowing to “wait months and years ... all our lives if necessary” for visas to Israel; from a young woman from Riga named Ruth Alexandrovich, arrested days before her wedding. You in the West are our only hope, the letter writers pleaded: the silence of the West is the Kremlin’s greatest ally. For all the refusenik heroism that was to follow, nothing quite equaled the daring of those first letter writers, defying a half-century of enforced anonymity and asserting their right to a public voice, to a name. In the Student Struggle, we memorized their letters like prayers.

The Kremlin’s response to the Jewish awakening was a hysterical anti-Semitic campaign thinly disguised as anti-Zionism. Factory workers were summoned to lectures about the unique evils of Jewish nationalism; newspaper cartoons depicted Israeli soldiers with grotesque noses and swastika armbands. Zionists were accused of the most monstrous crimes, from deliberately murdering Palestinian babies to collaborating with the Nazis. Nothing less than world peace was threatened by Zionist aggression. The problem with “Abram,” it turned out, was not that he didn’t know how to fight, but that he fought all too well. The notion of Zionism as racism was born in the Soviet Union; and so, too, was the ease with which anti-Zionism may mutate into anti-Semitism.

The emergence of the refuseniks transformed the Soviet Jewry movement in America. Our cause was no longer an abstract struggle to restore religious and cultural rights, but a personal campaign for people we felt we almost knew. Our initial slogan, “Let them live or let them leave,” was replaced with the unambiguous “Let my people go.” Eventually even the American Jewish establishment could no longer avoid a systematic campaign of protest—especially after the trial in Leningrad in 1970 of refuseniks who had plotted to steal a plane and fly it to Israel. That trial focused world attention on the oppression of Soviet Jewry.

Activists on both sides of the Iron Curtain became expert at outwitting the Kremlin’s attempt to suppress information about the refuseniks. Protest letters were smuggled out by sympathetic Western diplomats; foreign journalists based in Moscow protected refuseniks by publicly naming them. From the other side of the Iron Curtain came Jewish books and ritual objects, delivered by emissaries pretending to be tourists. Years before the Iron Curtain was officially lifted, it had become thoroughly permeable.

The struggle over the Jackson-Vanik amendment was a case in point. The Nixon administration opposed the amendment as a threat to détente, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger tried to bully Jewish leaders into rescinding their support. When some leaders wavered, refuseniks in Moscow, risking arrest for treason, wrote an open letter to American Jews warning against retreat on the amendment. “Brothers, be strong!” they demanded. That message, coming from men and women facing exile to Siberia, was intended to shame. I was in Moscow at the time, and I brought out the letter.

By the mid-’70s, a transformed Jewish establishment was leading the movement. Thanks to Jackson-Vanik, a new generation of Jewish leaders learned how to lobby Congress and, no less important, how to resist White House pressure. Jackson-Vanik was the moment that American Jewry repudiated the legacy of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the pre-eminent American Jewish leader during the Holocaust, who failed to challenge President Roosevelt on Jewish rescue. Through the Soviet Jewry movement, moreover, a beautiful symbiotic relationship emerged between the freest Jews in the Diaspora and the most oppressed. By publicly expressing their solidarity with Soviet Jews, American Jews overcame their inhibitions and assumed their place within American society as a self-confident community. The courage shown today by American Jewish leaders in standing with Israel against the growing effort to delegitimize it, and to stand against an administration intent on weakening the American-Israeli relationship, is a legacy of the Soviet Jewry movement.

The wise temperament of the Soviet Jewry movement largely avoided the self-referential rage of other protest movements in the 1960s. Earnestly mainstream, a movement of mere “students and housewives”: this was how a KGB agent disparagingly described the movement to the refusenik Natan Sharansky. But its moderation attracted a wide coalition of supporters that gave the movement its longevity. Soviet Jewry rallies were safe.

The movement succeeded also because it spoke both the language of Jewish interests and the language of universal human rights. One of our first demonstrations was a weeklong interfaith fast; Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders joined the campaign. The world’s conscience, insisted Birnbaum, who stubbornly believed in the existence of such a thing, would be roused for our cause. He repeated the words “public opinion” so often that they evoked for me a concrete image: a disciplined and organized force waiting, in his phrase, to be “galvanized.

Birnbaum challenged the post-Holocaust Jewish pessimism that tends to divide the world between those who want the Jews dead and those who are merely neutral about it. Not so, countered Birnbaum: the redemption of Soviet Jewry would be a part of a messianic awakening of oppressed peoples everywhere. Many of our protests were held opposite the United Nations at the Isaiah Wall, and the prophetic words engraved on it, “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,” were the basis for one of our fervent Hebrew songs. We looked across the street with hope: surely the world body established partly in response to the Holocaust would hear our case. (Who can imagine such hope today?) Birnbaum was proud that his birthday, December 10, coincided with U.N. Human Rights Day.

The movement’s two achievements—mainstream respectability and outreach to non-Jews—were threatened by the brief but furious emergence of Rabbi Meir Kahane and his Jewish Defense League. The Brooklyn-born Kahane founded the JDL in 1968, as a vigilante group to protect Jews in inner-city neighborhoods. Two years later he turned Soviet Jewry into his main focus, leading his followers in riots at the Soviet mission to the United Nations; some went underground and bombed Soviet offices in New York and Washington. The cause of Soviet Jewry, that most gentle of protest movements, now had its Black Panthers.

I was intrigued. Kahane appealed to my growing impatience with the respectability of the Student Struggle, which opposed civil disobedience even as refuseniks were becoming increasingly bold in their own protests. It was time to take the Soviet Jewry issue off the obituary page and put it on page one, Kahane said beguilingly. The media reinforced his argument by rewarding his violence. Reporters covered the most minor JDL demonstrations, just in case Kahane’s boys provided any action. By contrast, the Student Struggle had to plead at times for coverage. After an arrest of refuseniks, I helped organize a Student Struggle vigil at the United Nations. When no reporters came, I phoned a local radio station and said, “Do we have to smash windows to get you out here?” Shortly afterward, a reporter from the station appeared. “Which one’s the window smasher?” he asked.

I left the Student Struggle and joined the JDL, and yielded to the ecstasy of rage. It was 1971 and I was seventeen, a hardened veteran of the Soviet Jewry movement. Together with my new comrades I harassed Soviet diplomats on the streets of New York and disrupted performances by Soviet artists in concert halls. Violence as theater: it was a common phenomenon. But in the symbolic world of the militant, even ballet dancers may stand in for jailers. Kahane’s cunning was to provide occasionally noble moments too, such as getting arrested with a thousand young people peacefully sitting in the streets of Washington—doing what Jewish leaders did not do during the Holocaust, he reminded us.

Kahane offered his young followers from peripheral Jewish neighborhoods outside of Manhattan an entry onto the main stage. Astonishingly, our petty harassment campaign—“Hey Igor, got one of those hats for me?” I taunted a diplomat in a fur hat emerging from the Soviet mission—created the worst crisis in years in Soviet-American relations. What a joke, we exulted: yeshiva kids from Brooklyn making headlines by cursing Soviet diplomats. But that was the point. We no longer were just yeshiva kids from Brooklyn. We were outlaws and power-brokers. Being of keen interest to The New York Times, even for opprobrium, made us a part of its world.

The JDL was a revolt against the American Jewish ethos of inoffensive Jewishness, of “nice Irvingism,” as Kahane called it. But the real price for entry into the JDL experience was legitimizing terrorism. Even those of us who did not place bombs in public places were obliged to defend those who did, the self-sacrificing saints of the movement. Terrorism as a moral principle—the phrase would not have seemed so terrible to me then—is based on the revolutionary’s notion that there are no innocents: bystanders are willfully helpless witnesses—and therefore accomplices—to atrocity. And since there is no pain like my pain, I am permitted to use any means to ease it.

The JDL’s undeniable achievement was to do precisely what Kahane promised: it placed the issue on page one by convincing a shameless media that the Soviet Jewry cause was “serious” enough to inspire violence. But no less fortuitous for the Soviet Jewry movement than the JDL’s appearance was its rapid disappearance. Fittingly, the end of its Soviet Jewry period was a death by firebombing. In 1972, a secretary, a Jewish woman, was killed by smoke inhalation in a JDL attack on the office of Sol Hurok, the impresario of Soviet-American cultural exchange. Investigated, demoralized, the JDL declined soon afterward.

Its involvement in the Soviet Jewry cause had lasted barely two tumultuous years. Kahane, until now merely thuggish, resurfaced in Israel as leader of the farthest religious right, no longer engaged with liberating Soviet Jewry but with expelling Palestinians from Israel. He fashioned a racist theology that defined vengeance against non-Jews as an essential principle of Judaism. The roots of that theology can be traced to Kahane’s Soviet Jewry period. No less than the argument over violence, the debate between the JDL and the mainstream movement was over the relationship between Jews and “the world,” as JDL members referred to the rest of humanity. Kahane dismissed as delusion the movement’s outreach to non-Jewish allies. He invoked the wisdom of the medieval ghetto: “Esau hates Jacob,” the goy hates the Jew.

The passage of the Jackson-Vanik amendment and the emergence of Congress as the active defender of Soviet Jewry fatally discredited Kahane’s Jewish isolationism. Refuseniks were blessed with a succession of bipartisan American protectors—Senator Henry M. Jackson, President Jimmy Carter (wellintentioned, Beckerman notes, but clumsy and ineffectual), President Ronald Reagan, and Secretary of State George Shultz, who hosted a Passover seder for refuseniks in the American embassy in Moscow. The movement proved that Jewish interests are best served when Jews promote their agenda alongside universal values.

The movement’s greatest tactical advantage was its ability to function through a transnational people. Even when the protests were small, they were magnified by their ubiquitousness—a Soviet dance troupe in Melbourne met by protesters distributing fake programs exposing Soviet anti-Semitism, a Soviet ship docked in Los Angeles spray-painted with a Star of David. Peoplehood was at once the ideological and the functional basis of the movement. Birnbaum called his young activists “historical Jews,” who felt a kinship to all other Jews simply for remaining Jewish. Historical consciousness energized the movement not only with indignation, but also with patience: from the perspective of the Jewish millennia, a struggle of several decades seemed a reasonable period of time in which to generate a second exodus.

While the Soviet Jewry movement was arguably the Diaspora’s great post-Holocaust achievement, only Israel ensured its success. Israel’s role in the struggle was complicated. It prodded a reluctant American Jewish establishment while trying to restrain non-establishment activists. The initiative to smuggle Jewish books and ritual objects into the Soviet Union was Israeli; but Jerusalem at times seemed more concerned about its diplomatic relations with Moscow than about the campaign to free Soviet Jews.

Beyond the practicalities, though, Israel’s very existence inspired the Soviet Jewish rebellion and gave it historic coherence as a movement for national repatriation. In the end, the Kremlin was correct to view Zionism as a formidable ideological foe. The Soviet Jewry movement resolved a century-long struggle between Bolshevism and Zionism. Young Jews in czarist Russia were pulled between proletarian revolution and Jewish renewal. In his autobiography, Chaim Weizmann, the great Zionist leader who became Israel’s first president, describes vehement ideological debates among Russian Jewish students in pre - World War I Switzerland, including “the arrogant Trotsky,” who expressed contempt for “any Jew who was moved by the fate of his people and animated by a love of its history and its tradition.” A century after its founding in czarist Russia, Zionism retrieved the grandchildren of the Jews who opted for Soviet rule.

The American protest movement ensured that Soviet Jews would be freed, but Israel ensured that they would be Jewish. The process of re-connecting Soviet Jews to their Jewish identity, begun with the Six Day War, culminated when Israel absorbed a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union through the 1990s. Unlike the refuseniks who emigrated in the 1960s and 1970s, the overwhelming majority of the émigrés of the 1990s had almost no Jewish consciousness. But the cultural pressures of joining a sovereign Jewish majority with a public space determined by the Hebrew language and the Jewish calendar have meant that Soviet Jews—and their non-Jewish spouses—have been gradually absorbed into some form of Jewish identity. True, the religious establishment, dominated by the ultra-Orthodox, is blocking the conversion to Judaism of non-halachically Jewish Russian immigrants. (The ultra-Orthodox community that did virtually nothing to save Soviet Jews now tries to prevent their full absorption into the Jewish people.) But for all the travails of immigration, Israel remains the one place where assimilation enhances Jewish continuity.

How relevant is the history of the struggle for Soviet Jewry to other dissident movements? With the rise of the Green Movement in Iran, this is now an urgent question. In several ways the two situations are fundamentally different. Unlike Soviet leaders, prevented from adopting overtly murderous means by the need to engage with the West and by the memory of Stalinism, Iran’s Islamist leaders have few constraints. Also Iranian dissidents lack the external support system that refuseniks could depend on. (If the global left were truly a moral force, it would provide that support system for Iranian dissidents, rather than misdirecting almost the entirety of its active sympathy to the Hamas regime in Gaza.) But Iranian dissidents have one advantage over the refuseniks: Islamist Iran is a far less sealed society than was the Soviet Union. And the information age further enhances transparency and regime vulnerability. Even Ahmadinejad, who grandstands before the media, cares about Iran’s image.

The refusenik precedent established the principle that dissidents willing to risk their security and their happiness for freedom deserve Western support, regardless of their movement’s apparent chances for success. When demonstrators in Tehran chanted that President Obama needs to choose between their cause and the regime, they were presenting a moral ultimatum. Non-intervention, as the refuseniks insisted, is itself a form of intervention, and on behalf of the oppressor. In distancing himself from Iranian dissidents, Barack Obama has become the spiritual heir of Richard Nixon, who was prepared to sacrifice the refuseniks for the sake of détente. Arguably not since Nixon has there been an American president so aloof from the pleas of dissidents, so reluctant to apply American power to challenge their tormentors. Given the moral abdication of the White House, Congress should take up the cause of the Iranian dissidents, as it did the Soviet Jewish dissidents.

The cause of human rights does not preclude détente—or as Obama prefers to put it, engagement—with dictators. In fact the opposite is true. One of the lessons of the Jackson-Vanik amendment is that pressure works when a dictatorship senses a benefit in the easing of repression. Through the 1970s, the Kremlin released tens of thousands of Jews, hoping to induce Congress to rescind the amendment. But when American-Soviet relations all but collapsed following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the Kremlin lost hope of winning trade credits and an arms control agreement, and emigration was almost completely halted. So Jackson needed Nixon. Dictators should be engaged with, so long as they can also be punished. Gal Beckerman’s book is a timely reminder that the most seemingly impermeable regimes are vulnerable to a combination of internal dissent and outside pressure. In the end, the most important lesson of the Soviet Jewry movement is that it worked.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor at The New Republic. This article ran in the December 2, 2010, issue of the magazine.

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.