Gal Beckerman has a single-minded, driven passion: the plight of the Jewish people suffering under oppressive regimes. If nothing else comes through in his book, When They Come for Us We'll Be Gone, this heart cry does. His concern for his fellow Jews across the world originated in his synagogue where the practice of celebrating a particular Soviet Jewish boy's bar mitzvah along with one's own created an awareness of people suffering outside his own insulated upbringing.
Beckerman meticulously traces the history of the efforts of Jewish people inside the Soviet Union as well as outside to emigrate from the Soviet Union to Israel or the United States. He highlights specific leaders in America who organized Jewish youth as well as adults in the sixties to massive civil rights demonstrations and also the leaders inside the Soviet Union, called "refuseniks" who created underground organizations to get Jews to resist assimilation, protest discrimination and ultimately leave and help populate Israel.
Beckerman's treatment was surprisingly even-handed for one who believes so ardently in the cause of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union. He unflinchingly describes certain American Jewish leaders who, while they may have been intent on getting the U.S. government to pressure the Soviet government to release Jews, they also enjoyed the fame, notoriety and using any means necessary to gain national attention. This included using bombs, violence and other acts of terrorism here in America to pressure the President (Nixon at the time) and his secretary of state (Kissinger) to speed up talks with Brezhnev concerning Jewish emigration.
The most interesting part of the book for me was learning about the different presidents and Soviet Leaders. The book starts with Nixon and Brezhnev and their touchy negotiations concerning detente. I found Kissinger, a Jew whose family escaped Nazi Germany, to be an intriguing individual and I plan to find a good biography of him.
Beckerman's observations of Carter and Reagan were also interesting. The Soviets did not take Carter seriously, even though he probably tried harder than any other president to work with the Soviets. Of course I'm old enough to remember that Carter succeeded in making American look soft to the rest of the world, the Iranian hostage situation not being the only example but the most dramatic.
Reagan did not play softball with the Soviets but he also understood the psychology of each leader. Andropov was a remnant of the old school and clung to his communist and regime's ideologies, Gorbachev, on the other hand, saw the writing on the wall and knew the USSR's days were numbered. Consequently he was more amenable to discussion. Reagan intuited this and worked with him in a way that did not appear as strong arming but was effective. Under the Reagan era one million Jews were granted exit visas to Israel.
This triumph for Israel was short-lived when they discovered that over 81% of the Jews with Israel visas did not travel to Israel but went on to America. This presented a new problem for the Zionists.
And the Soviet Jews didn't care. They didn't care about Zionism or detente. They simply wanted to pursue a normal life with the opportunity to provide for their families and gain good professions without persecution or discrimination. And frankly, who is anyone to judge that?
What amazes me is the demands of mostly secular Jews that an atheistic government exercise and protect human rights. Based on what grounds? That the Bible says so? I know many, if not most atheists, conduct their lives according to a moral compass but that would be inside countries that have had Christian foundations that say there is such a thing as moral absolutes and human beings have value.
Governments like the Soviet Union, as well as many totalitarian regimes, say that the state is god and might makes right. So I found the demand that the Soviets act according to a foreign principle somewhat strange and rather unrealistic.
One other thing that bothered me about the book was its myopic view of Soviet persecution and discrimination. The Jews may have been the most organized and possessed the most political clout in the U.S. and received the most media attention, but they were not the only people group that was persecuted and oppressed inside the USSR. No religion was tolerated, other than an Orthodox church that paid lip service to Christianity and agreed to stay firmly inside the boundaries set by the atheist regime they lived under.
When I was in college a Soviet dissident came to speak at my school. He spoke of the oppression and lack of religious freedom in his country, as well as the deprivation of human dignity and rights. He described an incident where as an example, the government destroyed an entire town: burned it to the ground and annihilated the entire population.
During the question and answer session, an elderly lady in a babushka jumped up and demanded to know why not one thing was mentioned about the plight of the Jews in Russia. The dissident explained that he himself was Jewish but that so much attention and support had been given to the Jews that they had become objects of resentment in the Soviet Union. Nobody knew about this annihilated town.
While this book is definitely tunnel-visioned and one wonders how objective, I still found it to be a great book that informed me and made me far more cognizant of the history of Jews, in the Soviet Union, Jewish activism in my own country, and how four presidents dealt with it.