How A Quest To Save Soviet Jews Changed The World A rally that drew a quarter-million people to the National Mall 23 years ago was a crucial turning point for Jews yearning to escape the Soviet Union. 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.
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How A Quest To Save Soviet Jews Changed The World

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How A Quest To Save Soviet Jews Changed The World

How A Quest To Save Soviet Jews Changed The World

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

On December 6, 1987, the Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, was about to touch down in Washington. It was his first visit to the United States. And that day, a quarter of a million people gathered on the National Mall, under the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, to demand rights for Soviet Jews. It was the culmination of a 25-year movement to force the Soviets to allow Jews to emigrate and practice their faith.

And among the speakers was then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.

Mr. GAL BECKERMAN (Author, "When They Come For Us, We'll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry"): He kind of played off of Reagan's earlier words at the Berlin Wall, and he said:

President GEORGE H.W. BUSH: Mr. Gorbachev, let these people go. Let them go. Let them go.

Mr. BECKERMAN: And the next day, apparently, Reagan stood with him in the Oval Office and said, you know, hey, did you hear about that rally yesterday? And Gorbachev kind of shook it off. But it was clear this sent a very strong message.

RAZ: That's the voice of Gal Beckerman. He tells this story in a new book called "When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry." And he describes a world where Soviet Jews were hardly allowed to acknowledge their religion.

Mr. BECKERMAN: You look at a large city like Moscow, with hundreds of thousands of Jews - there was only one synagogue. There was no way to become a rabbi or eat kosher food. It wasn't allowed. But even more fundamentally than that, there was no way for Jews to even have the 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.

What people were demanding, for the most part, was just some kind of avenue so they could learn about their tradition - about where they come from, about this people that they knew, for better or worse, they were a part of.

Why did the Soviets make it almost impossible for Jews to leave? I mean, why did they want them to stay at all?

Mr. BECKERMAN: You know, it's strange. I kind of think of their attitude as a little schizophrenic. On the one hand, they really didn't allow them to assimilate in any real way. And every Soviet citizen had an internal passport, and it had your nationality. People who were Jews, their passports said Jew. This was a decision that Stalin made in 1937 that must have been, at some level, a tough decision.

On the one hand, he followed this Leninist principle of all Soviet citizens should just kind of melt into one, general populace. But on the other hand, he wanted to control this population, and Jews always had kind of a strange place in the Russian psyche. And so he wanted to know who the Jews were.

By the time that the '60s comes around, they don't really have any kind of positive sense of Jewish identity. But they knew they were Jews because every time they applied for a job or to, you know, had to move into a new apartment, they had to show these passports.

RAZ: In your book, you describe a famous attempt by one group of Soviet Jews. They were desperate to leave. So in 1970, they decided to hijack a plane. What happened?

Mr. BECKERMAN: This was a group of the Jews based in Latvia. And all of them had been refused exit visas. They very much dreamt - wanted to go to Israel.

RAZ: 'Cause once you were denied, you couldn't get a job, and you couldn't do a whole bunch of other things, right?

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

The hijacking had a lot of different forms to it. But eventually, it found a real form among this group who decided they would steal a 12-seater plane that was flying on a route along the Finnish border and had one stopover. At the stopover, they would overtake the pilot and the co-pilot, and then fly the plane to Sweden, where they would hold a big press conference and talk about why they had made this decision.

Now, the KGB knew about this plot. I've seen the documents.

RAZ: There were so many informants within the movement, presumably, right?

Mr. BECKERMAN: That's right. And 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.

And in some ways, the people who were involved with this plot knew that they were being followed. They knew that they were going to get caught. And as the days progressed towards the actual moment of the hijacking, they had a strong sense that this was not going to go well. And in fact, they all got together and wrote kind of a 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.

And as they were on the tarmac, about to get on the plane, they were tackled to the ground by police and then thrown into jail. And then the Soviets decided that this was a wonderful opportunity for them. 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 - they called in hooliganism.

And they really tried to use the trial for that purpose - in fact, to such an extent that they sentenced the two leaders of the plot to death. People couldn't believe that they had sentenced two men to death for a crime that they hadn't even actually committed. And it highlighted the total desperation of these people.

You know, 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. Eventually, the Soviets commuted the death sentences.

And that moment really turned this cause from being province of just, you know, a few lonely but very committed activists into a global cause that was not going to go away.

RAZ: Now, the plight of Soviet Jews then becomes an important factor in how the U.S. begins to determine its policy towards the Soviets. How did those two things intersect?

Mr. BECKERMAN: Well, the movement was specifically referring to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which said anyone can leave their country of their own free will. So it wasn't just Jews wanting to help other Jews. It was something that Americans could point to, that represented universal principles that countries had ratified, and say that the Soviets were violating them.

But the way it really found form in the Cold War was through the Jackson-Vanik Amendment.

RAZ: This is - you're talking about Senator Henry Jackson, better known as "Scoop" Jackson. And I'm curious about him, because he was a Democrat from Washington state. He didn't have a large Jewish constituency. And yet, as you describe in the book, he takes up this cause. He becomes the champion of Soviet Jews. Why was he so passionate about this issue?

Mr. BECKERMAN: What triggered his interest in this movement was something that the Soviets did, actually. In August 1972, the Soviets have started to let out some Jews but they wanted the people who left the Soviet Union to pay for the education that they'd gotten by the Soviet state.

This very much bothered Henry Jackson because at that same time, the Soviets were engaged with the U.S. in trade talks. And specifically, the Soviets wanted preferred trading status.

Well, 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.

RAZ: And this had an enormous impact on American foreign policy in general, right?

Mr. BECKERMAN: Absolutely, because everytime Gorbachev would walk into a meeting with Reagan by the mid-'80s, the first thing Reagan would do - and we see this in memoirs and in oral histories - you know, 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.

RAZ: Wow. Every time.


RAZ: Incredible. You end the book with a look at the legacy of the Soviet emigres to the U.S., including some pretty famous people.

Mr. BECKERMAN: Yeah. I mean, it's kind of a testament to how large this group was, and how varied they are. You have everyone from Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister of Israel, to someone like Sergey Brin, the founder of Google.

RAZ: That's Gal Beckerman. He's the author of the new book "When They Come For Us, We'll Be Gone." It's about the movement to rescue Soviet Jews.

Gal Beckerman, thank you so much.

Mr. BECKERMAN: Thank you for having me.

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