In his last posts, Forward staff writer Gal Beckerman wrote about barbecuing with hijackers and his other baby. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” will be available September 23. His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog series. For more information on the series, please visit:
There is a strange irony in having worked on a history of the Soviet Jewry movement at a moment when Israel often sees those who most cherish the upholding of human rights and international law as its enemies. The recent wars in Lebanon and Gaza happened while I was researching and writing the book, conflicts that were followed by allegations that Israel had committed war crimes, and then by Israel’s defenders fiercely denouncing the NGOs and other international bodies who made those claims.
I say ironic because during the period I examine in the book – the early 1960s to the late 1980s – it was Jews who spoke most often about the respect for human rights. It was the Soviet Jewry movement that made such effective use of the language of international law. It wasn’t so long ago, but attitudes have so clearly shifted, that the years I wrote about now seem like a Twilight Zone inverse of today. Setting aside that there are those who see extreme bias (and even anti-Semitism) behind the claims of Israeli human rights violations, the reality is that Israel appears to be on the opposite side of these universal principles, not the force that is defending them. And that is a real change.
Back in the 1960s, Israel helped clandestinely to foment an international movement to help Soviet Jews, and they specifically focused on what they saw as the trampling of minority rights as the cause’s main argument. Throughout the years of the struggle, there was nothing more effective for both refuseniks (Jews who were refused emigration permits) and their American friends than to point to Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” In one samizdat journal, these words sat comfortably on the masthead next to Psalm 127, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem.” Soviet human rights activists like Andrei Sakharov supported the movement passionately and his photo still hangs on Natan Sharansky’s office wall. He looked up to him as a hero.
And most importantly, when the Helsinki process started in 1975 — a series of multilateral meetings that consistently put the Soviets on the defensive about their internal policies – it was the condition of Soviet Jewry that most clearly illustrated the problem. There was almost complete overlap between the goals of those focused on defending universal principles and those who cared about what was also very clearly a Jewish cause.
“When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone” will be available next week.
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Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman
Leaving Mother Russia