Thursday, November 25, 2010

Fascinating history of the movement to save Soviet Jewry

Yossi Klein Halevi has written a semi-autobiographical book review of "When They Come for Us We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry" by Gal Beckerman, at The New Republic.

His review may be almost as good as the book.

Here's the beginning:
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.

Halevi was himself involved in the movement from the beginning, so he has some interesting insights on the subject.

The New Republic provides some bloggers and their readers with a special pass-through URL to go past TNR's paywall, so you can read the entire review here. (Just another benefit of reading EoZ!)

And if you want to buy the book, please use this link to support the blog.