Photograph via Flickr by vapourtrails
By Sam Kerbel
On February 15, 2012, Jewish Daily Forward opinion editor Gal Beckerman won the coveted 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for his book When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry. The award, given by the Jewish Book Council in recognition of “the important role of emerging writers in examining the Jewish experience,” includes a $100,000 cash prize and a special gala ceremony in Jerusalem. Shortly after the announcement, Beckerman spoke with Guernica about the complexity of the movement to free Soviet Jews and its enduring legacy.
—Sam Kerbel for Guernica
Guernica: A variety of approaches were taken to help free Soviet Jews. Meir Kahane and the JDL chose paramilitarism, committing acts of violence not limited to firebombings, in contrast to the social, more peaceful protests of refuseniks like Volodya and Masha Slepak as well as Avital Scharansky’s diplomatic outreach to political figures and celebrities on behalf of her husband, Anatoly. Can you explain the confluence of these vastly different tactics? How did they all find a place in this struggle?
Gal Beckerman: Much in the same way the civil rights movement had both Martin and Malcolm. There was an ongoing debate over tactics from the beginning until the end of the movement, and to some extent the range of available forms of protest, that spectrum, had a lot to do with the social context of the times. So when you have a moment like the late 1960s and early 1970s when the landscape is dominated by groups like the Black Panthers, which represent a violent form of identity politics, it’s not surprising that there should be a Jewish group like Kahane’s that tried to capture that same spirit and directed it toward the cause of Soviet Jewry. No social movement exists in a vacuum and the Soviet Jewry movement was certainly subject to the vicissitudes of mid- to late-twentieth-century American history.
Guernica: You mention in a video about your book that the cause for Soviet Jewry both united American and Soviet Jews—through efforts like the Soviet twin program—and helped the two largest Diaspora communities overcome “residual trauma” from the war. But to say these two groups had rather different postwar experiences would be an understatement. What, if anything, did these two groups share?
The Soviet Jewry teaches us that these feelings of resentment, this tension, that the ad campaign brought up is not new. It is part of the DNA of the Israeli-American Jewish relationship.
Gal Beckerman: In a very literal sense, they shared a common history. When American Jews spoke about Soviet Jews as their long lost cousins, they weren’t being hyperbolic. Most American Jews were descended from grandparents or great-grandparents who left the Pale of Settlement for America at the turn of the twentieth century, before the Bolshevik Revolution. If the two communities had different issues to confront after the war it’s because the mass immigration that occurred during that period had landed them in very different situations. But that sense of familial link that many American Jews felt when they went to visit activists and refuseniks in the Soviet Union came from someplace quite deep, a reconnecting of the blood lines.
Guernica: When postwar American Jews began moving to the suburbs, they shied away from displaying external signs of their religion, in large part to fit comfortably with their middle-class milieu. What suddenly led them to rally around a group of Jews thousands of miles away? What propelled American Jews to take off their assimilationist masks?
Gal Beckerman: What was so unique about the Soviet Jewry movement and what made Jews feel comfortable advocating through it for other Jews—something the community had not done before in this way—was that it was simultaneously a universal and particular cause. At one level, this was about minority rights, about getting the Soviets to adhere to a tenet of the Universal Deceleration of Human Rights that said anyone had the right to live wherever they chose. This was a language and an attitude that American Jews understood quite well by the 1960s. They had lived these principles through the civil rights movement. But at another level, this was a tribal thing. It was about Jews helping Jews, plain and simple. I think the fact that these two elements overlapped provided a path for the fully assimilated and acculturated American Jews to easily express themselves as both American and Jewish at the same time, a breakthrough for them as a community.
Guernica: How have Russian Jews who left the Soviet Union in the 1980s acclimated to their new environs in Israel, America, and elsewhere? Thinking of writers like Gary Shteyngart, one gets the sense that Russian Jews haven’t fully settled wherever they’ve ended up, that they’re wandering souls still searching for a sense of belonging.
Gal Beckerman: Your observation is correct to an extent, but whenever I hear this about Russian Jews, I wonder how different this really is from any immigrant group. If you go back and look at the waves of immigration over the past century and it’s the same story replaying itself again and again. The first generation comes over and still cleaves to an insular identity, the second generation has one foot in and foot outside that world and often creates fantastic literature as a result (i.e. Shteyngart, and I would add, his stylistically very different equal, David Bezmozgis), and by the third generation, once acculturation has occurred you have little more than nostalgia. There are, of course, many particularities about Soviet Jews as an immigrant group that make them interesting—the Communist society they stewed in for so long, the fact that they were emigrating to the “enemy’s” country, etc. But, overall, I’d say they are pretty much following the well-trod path of absorption.
Guernica: Incidents like the backlash against the Israeli government’s ad campaign last December—an attempt to persuade Israelis living abroad to return—have indicated the possibility of an ever-widening gap between Jews in the U.S. and Israel. Using the Soviet-American Jewry relationship as a backdrop, what do you make of this phenomenon: are Israelis isolating American Jews, or do you think American Jews are losing emotional connections with other Jews abroad? Can the movement to free Soviet Jewry teach us anything on this matter?
Gal Beckerman: The Soviet Jewry teaches us that these feelings of resentment, this tension, that the ad campaign brought up is not new. It is part of the DNA of the Israeli-American Jewish relationship. Zionism as an ideology has a very specific and unambiguous answer to the Jewish question: move to Israel. American Jews, through their success and prosperity, are a living rebuke to the notion that Jewish life can not survive in the Diaspora. This tension can be submerged for long periods of time, but it never goes away. The moment of crisis in the Soviet Jewry movement came when overwhelming numbers of Soviet Jews began choosing to go to America over Israel. For the Israelis, this was the moment to exert their Zionist prerogative and say, no, you must come to Israel and to even go so far as actively shutting off any other options. For American Jews, the American parts of their identities would not permit them to tell people emerging from a totalitarian regime that they couldn’t have the choice of where to live.
Are we at a similar moment right now? The stakes are actually not as high. Remember that Soviet Jews represented the potential of a million new Jewish Israelis and a way to put off the demographic problems vis-à-vis the Palestinians for at least a generation. Now, the issue is more philosophical in a way. Zionism doesn’t have the same hold on today’s Israelis and younger generation of American Jews in the Diaspora that it once did. Whether Israel can do anything to change this situation still seems like an open question and one of the more perplexing ones we face.
Sam Kerbel is an assistant editor at Guernica.