A Q+A on the Soviet Jewry movement with Gal Beckerman
When I first started this blog, I’d stated that very little has been written about the Soviet Jewry movement, and that most of it focuses on the movement in North America and on the better known refuseniks such as Natan Sharansky. A new book coming out today goes a long way to undo all that. Written by Forward reporter Gal Beckerman, When They Come For Us We’ll Be Gone tells the story of the struggle from both sides of the ocean.
I’m still reading my copy, so I won’t say much about it yet, except that I’m very excited about this book. The little existing material on this subject is fairly dry. There’s no definitive, non-academic narrative. This is the opposite. I felt pulled in from the get-go, because Beckerman allowed himself to be led by his story-telling instincts and personal childhood associations with the movement, rather than just the facts.
I’m also thrilled that he very kindly agreed to a (not-so-short) Q&A with me for this site. Beckerman’s observations, as a non-Soviet Jew, are fascinating to me, echoing things I’ve often noticed without always being able to articulate, about Soviet Jews.
Lots more to read about the book—a review from the Forward; a podcast over at Tablet; the first of three excerpts on the Forward site; and a great video conversation on Jewcy between Beckerman and Jennifer Gilmore, author of Something Red, a novel about an American family dealing with the radicalism of the left from which, ironically, Soviet Jews were clamouring to escape.
Do you yourself have Russian/Soviet roots?
I don’t, actually. My grandparents were all Polish Jews. The closest I get to the Soviet Union was one grandfather whose village was on the Byelorussian border and spent the war years as a refugee in a Siberian labor camp. He speaks Russian as a result and adores his Red Army Choir album. Otherwise, it’s really just that I found an extremely compelling story.
This is your first book—what inspired you to take on the Soviet-Jewry movement?
The characters, the plot, the historical significance. I know that sounds quite clinical, but I am a storyteller at heart and what I discovered was an incredible narrative: a small group of people who inserted themselves into the volatile politics of the Cold War and made their cause one of global concern.
There have been a few books written on the Soviet-Jewry movement already, though I don’t feel they’ve been widely publicized. How does your work add to, or differ from, what we already know?
First, I would like to think that my book is the most comprehensive in that it looks at the struggle as it was waged in the Soviet Union, but also as it was picked up by activists in North America. But, more importantly, it is written as a “narrative” in a way no book before on the topic has been. Reading the other academic monographs on the Soviet Jewry movement, I felt that the drama was missing, and so I tried to return that element to it.
Did you have an idea of what the story was going to be when you started, and how did that change along the way?
It took me a while to get a handle on the basic arc that I was going to track both on the Soviet and North American side. But in retrospect it was pretty well defined before I came to the story. I just had to devote a lot of time to reading and talking with people. What was completely unknown to me was whose story I was going to tell. I always say that the hardest part about this book was casting it. Because I was covering such a long stretch of history and the movement evolved so much over time, I had to find the right “characters” who would take me where I wanted to go. Now they seem to me like the most obvious choices, but at the time I had to test out whether a certain section could be sustained by one person—if, for example, my telling of the Jackson-Vanik amendment could rest on the shoulders of the young legislative aide to “Scoop” Jackson, Richard Perle.
What was the most surprising thing you learned during your research?
By far, the most surprising episode for me to learn about—and something I knew nothing about previously—was the Leningrad hijacking. This was the story of a group of Jews from Leningrad and Riga who tried to hijack a plane and fly it out of the Soviet Union. I interviewed most of them and got to know them as a group as well, and it gave me some access to the real emotional core of the movement. These were people who were so desperate to leave that they were willing to risk their lives to get out. Before I learned the particulars of their story, I knew all this intellectually but it was a whole different experience to hear them describe how they simply could not imagine a future for themselves in the Soviet Union.
I know the book hasn’t come out yet, but what do you think the appeal is of this historical period to contemporary audiences? I guess what I’m asking is, why should people care about this story?
I have always been fascinated with the world after the war. I’m the grandson of Holocaust survivors and it was always so hard for me to fathom how they underwent that extreme trauma but then eventually became the loving, normal grandparents I know. What happened in those post-war years? How did the world reconstitute itself? I think it’s an underreported time period. People have devoted a lot of attention to the cataclysm. This book is about how the dust settled afterwards, and how the two largest Jewish communities in the Diaspora become what they are today.
How do you negotiate the terrain between what’s happening in Israel now and the Soviet Jewry movement? It seems that it’s all so much more politicized now, and that the lines between good and bad, right and wrong, were much clearer then.
Honestly, I tried to ignore anything related to Russian Jews now living in Israel. This was not easy since it is in part my job to report on aspects of that community as a writer at the Forward—not to mention that I got an earful from former refuseniks about their political opinions every time I did an interview. But I had to separate out one from the other. I was writing about a historical period and their views about Palestinians or which political party they support could not figure into portrait of this group of people from 1960s to the end of the Cold War. Of course, I have given some thought to the question of why someone like Avigdor Lieberman or the settlement movement has such appeal for this community and my very simplistic sense is that for people who grew up under a left-wing totalitarian regime there is a natural pendulum swing in the other direction once they are free to choose. They feel they know the excesses of the left—they are in fact intimately familiar with them—but they more rarely stop to consider the evils of the right.
Do you think there’s anything like the Soviet Jewry movement out there today? There’s a tendency to ignore protests, or to just focus on more radical, anarchist elements (I’m thinking of Toronto’s G20 protests in June). When we look back on previous movements, such as civil rights or the Soviet-Jewry movement, we tend to recognize them as the forces for change that they were. But is that just hindsight talking, or were the movements really that different then?
Well, civil rights and Soviet Jewry were very focused movements with specific goals. The G20 protests become an umbrella for a wide range of grievances. But I’ll also say, about Soviet Jewry, that one of its successes, which will be difficult to replicate today, is that it really was a convergence of the universal and the particular. Especially in the Jewish community, these are two forces that are often painted these days as being in opposition to each other. You are either for human rights or you are for Israel and the Jewish people. It seems almost fantastical now to think that there was a movement, not so long ago, where that choice was completely irrelevant.
Any insights into contemporary issues between Soviet Jews and the more organized, mainstream North American Jewish community? In my own interviews, I’ve heard a lot of anger from people about their treatment once they arrived here. Did that come up in your research?
For sure. Many people told me that they were made to feel like they should be grateful for being rescued and this frustrated them. In Israel, of course, the task of absorbing so many hundreds of thousands was chaotic and not done as well as it could have been. This also led to much bitterness. But I also have the impressions that many of these sore feelings have receded as the generation that grew up or was born in the West comes of age.
Another common issue between Russian and North American Jews is that of Jewishness. Many Soviet/Russian Jews don’t go to synagogue, aren’t involved in organized Jewish life—they may not even keep kosher—all the markers of Jewish identity in North America. Did your understanding of Jewish identity change along the way?
Yes. It did. And what is interesting is that the Soviet Jewish idea of Jewish identity is one that is gaining in prominence now at a moment when religion seems less sustainable. For them, I believe, Jewish identity is centred around an idea of peoplehood, a kind of tribal sense of connectivity among a people who share a common history and heritage. It has become in fact a buzzword for, among others, the Jewish Agency for Israel, which has re-branded itself as an organization that wants to promote “peoplehood” to disaffected young Jews. And theirs is just one of many initiatives at the moment that is conceiving of Jewish identity in these terms. We’ll have to wait and see if it has more staying power than religion. I’m doubtful that without a core of faith, that something called “the Jewish people” can sustain itself. And this is coming from someone who is not religious himself.
I assume you spoke to Soviet Jews who ended up in both North America and Israel. Did they view their immigration experience differently, or did they understand themselves as Jews differently? My sense is that those Jews who went to Israel in the 1970s tended to have much more Zionist leanings. And of course, Israeli realities are so vastly different from North American life.
The Zionists activist did mainly go to Israel, especially those who left in the 1970s. The vast majority of Soviet Jews however were just looking for a better life and were not leaving with a strong ideological purpose. They preferred the United States, for obvious economic reasons. But there was, over the course of the movement, an argument between Israel and the Diaspora about whether Jews should be forced to emigrate to Israel or given free choice. Eventually Israel won through political pressure when in 1989 the United States made it almost impossible to get a visa. Part of Israel’s argument over the years was that only there could Soviet Jews remain connected to their Jewish identity, if only because they would be living in a Jewish State. And, to some extent, they have been proven right. Here in North America there is more of an identification with one’s Russian identity and even that might not be the case in a generation or two. In Israel, Jewish identity is a given and all the things the refuseniks fought for—knowledge of Hebrew, a rudimentary awareness of the tradition, and a connection to a people—is completely taken for granted.
What’s on your bedside reading table now?
I read a lot of fiction as well as history. Like everyone else probably, I’m just finishing Jonathan Franzen’s new book. I also recently read Janet Malcolm’s In the Freud Archives for the first time—it’s extraordinary. And I’m making me way through Tony Judt’s Postwar, which had sat on my shelf unread for a long time. His death inspired me to pick it up.
So what’s next for you?
I’d love to write another book, though I don’t have a new subject yet. It will take some time, I think, to fasten on to a new obsession after so many years of working on this one. But I’m excited for the moment when that happens. In the meantime, I’m a reporter at the Forward and freelancing reviews and essays whenever I can.