Book Review: The Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry

by Jason Dzubow on January 31, 2011

in Human Rights, International

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Gal Beckerman’s new book, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, has been widely touted as the definitive work on the subject, and earlier this month, it was crowned Jewish Book of the Year by the Jewish Book Counsel.  As far as I know, Mr. Beckerman is the youngest author (age 34) to receive such an honor.

Oy vey! It's hard not to kvell over this book.

I just completed the book, and I fully agree that it deserves this high praise.  Mr. Beckerman eloquently explores the breadth and depth of the effort to free Soviet Jews, and makes a convincing argument that the movement launched the modern human rights era.  It’s a fascinating story, which alternates between Soviet Jewish activists, American Jews, who until now have received little recognition, and national figures, such as Senator Henry Jackson, co-author of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which linked human rights and American foreign policy (over the objection of President Nixon and Henry Kissinger).

But more than this–and like any great book–it taught me something about myself.  I had not really thought about it before, but the effort to help Soviet Jews is what initially sparked my own interest in human rights and social justice.  The book also reminded me of another struggle taking place as we speak–the effort to pass the DREAM Act.

First (since blogs are for navel gazing), a bit about me.  Like Mr. Beckerman, I had a “twin” Bar Mitzvah–In 1982, I was matched with a Jewish boy from the Soviet Union who was not permitted to have a Bar Mitzvah himself.  As my “twin,” he was mentioned several times during the ceremony, and was symbolically Bar Mitzvahed with me.  Whether he ever learned of this, I don’t know, and I basically forgot about him until I read Mr. Beckerman’s book.

Years later, during my first job after college, I helped find jobs for refugees who had settled in Philadelphia.  About half of them were from the Soviet Union, the product of the struggle to save the Soviet Jews.  While it was an interesting and rewarding position, the job was fairly prosaic, and I did not know much about the context of what I was doing.  Again, Mr. Beckerman’s book illuminated this chapter of my life.

Finally, while reading the book, I kept thinking about parallels between the Jews of the U.S.S.R. and DREAM Act students in the United States.  While Russian Jews wanted to leave and DREAM Act students want to stay, both groups faced (or face) arbitrary arrest at any moment, both lived (or currently live) in fear, both were viewed as dangerous outsiders, and both suffered these difficulties not because of something they did, but because of who they are.

I’m proud to say that the organized Jewish community–led by HIAS–has worked hard to help DREAM Act students.  It is a fitting continuation of the struggle to save Soviet Jews.  I hope Gal Beckerman’s superb book will remind us of the power of an organized community to work for social justice, and of the ethical imperative that all of us have to continue the struggle.

The best place to purchase the book (and read an interview with the author) is here.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

DavidV January 31, 2011 at 3:07 pm

Jason, Once again a great blog post! Thanks for pointing out our affinity as American Jews with other immigrants and unjustly persecuted people!

I came across this story HuffPo strory: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/31/saads-story-a-deported-st_n_816321.html
about Saad Nabeel, a 20 year old Texas native who was arrested, detained and deported, and a Texas Businessman named Ralph Isenberg who seems like a kindred spirit:

Isenberg was raised in Wisconsin by refugees from Nazi Germany. By his own account, he barely made it through high school. He eventually found his way to Dallas, where he specializes in distressed-property management. “I like going and managing where no one else wants to manage,” he says.

Isenberg works on immigration cases 15 hours a day, seven days a week. Not being an attorney, he says he uses business techniques to solve immigration situations. He’s a relentless caller and letter-writer, pressuring officials in Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He asks influential friends to help, and he’s not afraid to pull out his checkbook. Last August, he paid $10,000 to attend a Democratic fundraising dinner with President Obama in the hopes of discussing Nabeel’s situation with him, only to be uninvited at the last minute — he was told he had been “tagged by the White House.” “They took my money, and then, no invite and no explanation,” Isenberg told the Dallas Observer.

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