Book review: ‘When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone’ by Gal Beckerman
When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone
The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 598 pp., $30
If you think the Cold War is dead as the backdrop for any decent espionage story, you haven’t read “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” journalist Gal Beckerman’s reheating of the politics of the Cold War and of how the millions of Russian Jews and the Americans trying to free them played not so small a part in the collapse of the Soviet empire.
It recalls a time, from the early 1960s through the fall of communism in 1989, when nuclear annihilation, not terrorism, was the motivating fear in the West. Central casting was obsessed with crazies behind the Iron Curtain with their fingers on nuclear warheads, and détente and ping-pong diplomacy had as much contemporary resonance as Al Qaeda and the Taliban do now. Unlike the Russia of today which is far better known for its oligarchs than its ideologues, the closed society of the Soviet Union was largely in the business of suppressing dissent.
Beckerman provocatively argues that those three decades of dealing with pestering refuseniks, those Soviet Jews who received an unequivocal nyet when they sought to leave the country, and the increasing numbers of newly politicized American Jews who badgered their own government into acting on behalf of their Russian brethren, ultimately hastened the demise of the Soviet Union.
It helped, of course, that the stagnating Soviet economy, where wheat became as valuable as warheads, could not keep pace with America’s stockpiling of weapons. Bread lines and shortages served as subplots of the Cold War. Meanwhile, the moral foundations of Soviet society crumbled under the weight of having to imprison, internally exile, culturally annihilate and generally make miserable the lives of 3 million Jews. The U.S. eventually made their plight a human rights issue, which became a bargaining chip in its dealings with the Soviets on arms control and trade.
The book is largely a tale of two Jewish communities. The one living in the Soviet Union was systematically being stripped of its Jewish identity. The Soviets shut down synagogues, forbade the teaching of Hebrew and prevented emigration. The spiritual genocide of its Jews became an unstated policy of the Soviet Union — only a few decades after the Holocaust.
Realizing that Jewish life was possible only by leaving, a small number of refuseniks suffered the harsh consequences of protesting a totalitarian state. The book is replete with daring acts of defiance, but the attempted hijacking in 1970 of a Soviet aircraft by 16 activists, and the death sentence that two of the hijackers received, galvanized both Soviet Jewry and world public opinion. (The death sentences were eventually commuted.)
Meanwhile, postwar American Jews sprinted along the fast track to assimilation seemingly oblivious to the fate of their contemporaries in Russia. Beckerman is unsparing in his criticism of the organized Jewish establishment, with the quiet diplomacy of some and the shocking passivity of the rest. When American Jews finally did find their voice, they did so in support of American civil rights, largely ignoring an even worse incivility that was taking place against the Jews of Russia.
Jewish leaders didn’t want to interfere with détente and the prevailing American foreign policy of realpolitik — the moral appeasement of tiptoeing around issues of human rights — not wanting to aggravate the Soviets and possibly inflame the Cold War. But eventually, what began as a whisper reverberated into a shriek. A newly inspired group of leaders emerged in the 1970s. College students, flush from the social upheavals of the 1960s, took to the streets. The militant Jewish Defense League used pipe bombs and guerrilla theater to show the Russians that when it came to freeing Soviet Jewry, nice Jewish boys were willing to trade in their books for baseball bats.
Meanwhile, Capitol Hill responded with the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the 1974 Trade Act, which served notice on the Soviets that trade with the United States depended on how many Jews, among others, would be allowed to emigrate. And with Israeli victories in the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars, Jews transformed their self-image from one of perpetual victimhood to one of political empowerment.
The book reads like a thriller, with subplots unfolding on the gritty streets of New York, inside dank Moscow apartments and ominous Soviet Star Chambers, and outside abandoned Russian synagogues, where almost magically thousands of Jews might spontaneously dance the hora — with lurking KGB agents on their tail.
Beckerman unveils a cast of charismatic heroes who improbably challenged the superpowers and won: Yaakov Birnbaum, who marshaled a few ragtag Americans into the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry; Andrei Sakharov, the father of the Soviets’ hydrogen bomb turned antiwar leader and dissident, who was an early non-Jewish champion of the Soviet Jewry cause; radical Rabbi Meir Kahane and hippie Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach; Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-Wash.), patron saint of Soviet Jewry; Elie Wiesel, who cemented his reputation as a man of conscience even before he became a Holocaust icon; and Anatoly Shcharansky (now Israeli political leader Natan Sharansky), who spent nine years in Soviet prisons and labor camps not realizing that he had become the poster child for Soviet oppression.
In this book, Beckerman has created a thrilling, smartly written saga, a necessary retelling of the perfect storm of political events that climaxed with the rescue of Jews trapped on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.
Rosenbaum, a novelist, essayist and law professor at Fordham University, is the author of “The Myth of Moral Justice.”
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