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How A Quest To Save Soviet Jews Changed The World

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman speaks at an award ceremony for immigrant scientists at Tel Aviv University on Oct. 26. Lieberman is one of the Soviet Jewish emigres who moved to Israel.
Jack Guez
AFP/Getty Images
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman speaks at an award ceremony for immigrant scientists at Tel Aviv University on Oct. 26. Lieberman is one of the Soviet Jewish emigres who moved to Israel.

On Dec. 12, 1987, a quarter-million people gathered in Washington, D.C., on the eve of a historic summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. They came from all over the country to a rally aimed at freeing Jews in what was then the Soviet Union.

Among the speakers was George H.W. Bush, who was vice president at the time. In his speech, he echoed the words of Reagan at the Berlin Wall, "Mr. Gorbachev," he said, "Let these people go. Let them go."

Author Gal Beckerman explores that moment, and that movement, in his new book When They Come For Us, We'll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry.

He tells NPR's Guy Raz that the day after the rally, Reagan stood with Gorbachev in the Oval Office and asked if he'd seen footage of the demonstration.

"Gorbachev kind of shook it off, but it was clear this sent a very strong message," Beckerman says.

A History Of Persecution

Jews had been persecuted in the Soviet Union through much of the 20th century. In 1970s Moscow, a city with hundreds of thousands of Jews, there was only one synagogue. Beckerman says there was no way to become a rabbi or even eat kosher food.

"Even more fundamentally than that, there was no way for Jews to even have a kind of secular Jewish identity that a lot of American Jews have -- just a knowledge of their background, of their history, a little bit of a sense of Hebrew," he says.

But Beckerman says Jews in the Soviet Union weren't demanding dozens of synagogues. They were just asking for the opportunity to learn more about their tradition which, he says, "they knew for better or for worse they were a part of." Later on, after constant denial, they just wanted to be able to leave the country. But that too was all but forbidden for decades.

Persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union started with a policy Joseph Stalin initiated in 1937. Every Soviet citizen was required to carry an internal passport and under "nationality," Jews were required to list "Jewish." Beckerman says this policy actually may have been a tough decision for Stalin.

"On the one hand, he followed this Leninist principle [that] all Soviet citizens should just melt into one general populace that doesn't have any distinctions for nationality," he says. "But on the other hand, he wanted to control this population and Jews always had kind of a strange place in the Russian society psyche, so he wanted to know who the Jews were."

Beckerman says by the time the 1960s rolled around, many Soviet Jews had little positive sense of their Jewish identity.

"But they knew they were Jews because every time they applied for a job or had to move into a new apartment, they had to show these passports," he says.

Desperate To Flee

While Soviet Jews could apply to leave the country, the vast majority were denied. They became known as "refuseniks" and were often unable to get a job.

"You became almost a pariah inside of Soviet society and it led to a whole series of bad things that could happen to you," he says. "You'd lose your job, but then it was illegal to be without a job -- you would be accused of parasitism. And then you suddenly had people who were former world renowned scientists working as stokers, shoveling coal or elevator operators, because the government would assign you to a job."

Beckerman says many of those who were desperate to flee were Zionists -- they wanted to go to Israel. In the summer of 1970, a group from Latvia was determined to make it there any way they could.

They decided to hijack a plane.

The group found a 12-seater scheduled to fly to Sweden. They planned to take over during a stopover in Finland.

But the plan never came to fruition. The KGB tackled and arrested some of the group on the tarmac the day they planned to hijack the plane.

"Just in the Soviet Union, if you had two people involved in anything, you could be sure that one of them was somehow talking to the KGB," Beckerman says.

However, he says, the group wrote a sort of "suicide note."

"They wanted to make sure that if they were caught or killed in the process, the world would know somehow why they did this. The Soviets couldn't just paint them as criminals who were trying to hijack a plane."

After the arrest, the Soviets seized the opportunity to paint the Latvians as religious extremists. The knew "they could put on a very large show trial and show the world in fact, that these were not these idealistic Zionists that they said they were, but Zionism was really a mask for 'hooliganism," Beckerman says.

And the end of a swift trial, the judge sentenced the group's two leaders to death. Beckerman says the verdict reverberated across the world.

"People couldn't believe that they had sentenced two men to death for a crime that hadn't actually committed in the end," he says. "It highlighted the total desperation of these people. Up until that point, it wasn't entirely clear that Soviet Jews were willing to go to that extent to get out; that they were suffering that much.

"That moment really turned this cause from being the province of just a few lonely but very committed activists, into a global cause that was not going to go away," he says.

The Effect On U.S. Policy

As the movement gained more prominence, it began to influence the way the United States formulated its foreign policy. At the forefront of the shift was a senator for Washington state -- Henry "Scoop" Jackson.

Beckerman says Jackson's interest in the movement was triggered in August 1972 when the Soviets started to let out some Jews, but was requiring them to pay a "diploma tax" for education they had received from the Soviet state. This bothered Jackson especially because, at the same time, they were involved with the U.S. in trade talks and seeking so-called "preferred trading status."

"Henry Jackson said, 'You know what, no. If they want these things -- these goodies from the U.S. -- they have to do something as well. And what we want from them in exchange is for them to change something about their internal policy that's making Soviet Jews in particular suffer,' " Beckerman says.

Over the next decade, those sentiments had a profound influence on American foreign policy.

"Every time Gorbachev would walk into meeting with Reagan by the mid-'80s, the first thing Reagan would do -- and we see this in memoirs and oral histories -- is Reagan would pull out a piece of paper with names of Soviet Jews who had been refused visas or had been somehow sent to prison for their activism and he said, 'Well if you want to talk, first we have to discuss these names,'" Beckerman says.

Eventually emigration restrictions eased and Soviet Jews were allowed to leave in larger numbers. Among those who left are Avigdor Lieberman, now Israel's foreign minister, and Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google.

"It's a testament to how large this group was and how varied they are," Beckerman says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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