Review of Let My People Go by Pauline Peretz (Trans: Ethan Rundell)
Joseph Stalin’s last years were the “Black Years of Soviet Jewry”. The trial and execution of the Yiddish writers, the Slansky trial of mainly Jewish Communists in Prague, and the infamous Doctors’ Plot in January 1953, all characterised this period.
Stalin’s unexpected demise put an end to systematic persecution and a probable deportation of huge numbers of Soviet Jews. It also prompted Shaul Avigur and Isser Harel, founding fathers of Israel’s intelligence community, to establish Nativ and task it with awakening diaspora Jews to the plight of their Soviet brethren.
Pauline Peretz’s book – subtitled “The transnational politics of Soviet Jewish emigration during the Cold War” – documents the genesis of the Soviet Jewry movement in the US. Peretz contends that Nativ became “the decisive actor in the history of the American (Soviet Jewry) movement”. President Eisenhower was in fact approached by the American Jewish leadership in February 1953 to raise the issue of emigration with the Kremlin. He adamantly refused to do so because the US needed the Arab world to act as a bulwark against Communist encroachment in the Middle East.
While the Israelis really wanted aliyah, they concurred with US Jewry to raise the issue initially as a broad human-rights one. More than 160,000 Jews had entered the US from the DP camps after 1945. There was also a growing belief, particularly among the younger generation, that Jewish leaders hadn’t done enough to stop the murder of the six million in Europe and that Soviet Jewry should not be left to its fate. And Peretz demonstrates that there was still deep reluctance to establish the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry in 1963.
At the same time, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry was founded by Jacob Birnbaum and Glenn Richter. Birnbaum, originally from Germany but who grew up in Britain, was strongly opposed to the conservatism of the mainstream organisations. He argued that saving Soviet Jewry was “a struggle and not a conference”. Many members of the SSSJ were survivors’ children, Orthodox and intent on aliyah, but were highly influenced by the American civil-rights movement. Their symbol of the shofar was seen as the equivalent of the clenched fist of the Black Panthers.
Heightened awareness after the Six-Day war and the first Leningrad trial in 1970 further catalysed American Jewry to take action. In 1971, the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry was established to further oppose “the Jewish establishment”.
At that time, Nixon and Kissinger did not wish to raise the emigration issue with Brezhnev because they believed it would inhibit efforts to secure a détente between the superpowers – to the extent that they refused even to meet community leaders. The linking of free emigration to favourable trade terms divided these rival organisations even further.
Yet American Jews had the bit between their teeth – and Nativ lost influence to play a secondary role during the 1970s.
Peretz has written a fascinating account, especially as the relevant archives remain classified in Israel. She was probably unwise to occasionally mention the British campaign as there were inaccuracies (including the description of the odyssey of this writer).
One million Jews left the USSR for Israel and elsewhere during the 1990s. This book sets in context the origins and commitment of the American movement that led the way.
Jewish Chronicle 4 December 2015