New Book About Our Family’s History

I recently finished, and greatly enjoyed, Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry. (See the New Republic book review here.)

My family emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1975, and Beckerman’s book is a history of the movement (starting in about 1963) that led to tens of thousands of Jews emigrating from about 1972 to 1979. It should be especially interesting to Soviet Jewish emigrants like me, as well as to people who are interested in U.S.-Soviet relations and in Jewish history generally, but it’s actually well written and enjoyable in its own right, telling the story as it unfolded from the Soviet, American, and Israeli perspectives.

One thing I didn’t know is that 1975, the year we left, was actually a very low year for Jewish emigration. Another thing I wasn’t fully conscious of was how bad the early 1980s were for Jews who stayed behind. (Actually, the really bad times described in the book were for activists of all kinds, including general pro-democracy and pro-human rights activists, as well as for Jews who applied to emigrate. All this might not have applied to Soviet Jews who kept their heads low and didn’t try to leave.)

I was also pleasantly surprised to learn of the positive role played in the movement by my former colleague, the late Bob Drinan. I wish I could have discussed these issues with him when he was alive. Same goes for my current Congressman, civil rights figure John Lewis. Also, mainly because of my basic ignorance of the history of that period, I didn’t realize just how much Henry Kissinger opposed much of the anti-Soviet and pro-emigration activism of the time, including the Jackson-Vanik amendment (which I discuss below), though I now realize that this all fits in perfectly with his general outlook on foreign policy.

But the main surprise for me in the book related to the Jackson-Vanik amendment, the handiwork of Cold War Democrat Scoop Jackson. The idea of the Jackson-Vanik amendment (see a CRS report here) was to deny most-favored-nation trade status to communist countries, but to allow Congress to waive the amendment if the countries allowed emigration. I had always assumed that the Soviet Union had allowed emigration as part of this “bread for Jews” deal. But it turns out that the Jackson-Vanik amendment was never waived for the Soviet Union until 1990, when there was almost no Soviet Union anymore. At the times of high Jewish emigration — something like 1972-74, 1977-79, and after 1987, if I remember correctly — the Soviet Union was letting Jews out for other reasons. In the ’70s, it was mainly to soften up public opinion on other matters, and in the ’80s, it was for Gorbachevy reasons.

The Jackson-Vanik amendment may have been useful in a number of ways: (1) the Soviet Union may have made emigration concessions before 1974 (like repealing the emigration tax and letting some Jews out) to prevent its passage; (2) the amendment itself, without the waiver, prevented the Soviet Union from getting some trade benefits, which may have been good all by itself; (3) agitation in favor of the amendment was important in the organization of American Jews as a political force; and (4) the existence of the amendment may have played a useful role in shaming the Soviet Union internationally. But the effect of the amendment that I had always assumed was primary — getting the Soviet Union to let Jews (including my family) out by offering trade benefits — seems to have been essentially nonexistent.

In any event, I highly recommend Beckerman’s book.

P.S. A couple of Russian errors crept into the book, but that won’t be of interest to anyone but Russian nerds.