Half a victory: the campaign to free Soviet Jews

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The campaign to give Soviet Jews the right to leave their country brought two diasporas and a world superpower together in an unlikely alliance. Yet while it was a brilliantly fought battle, it could hardly be described as a total triumph for human rights, writes Oliver Bullough.

Oliver Bullough
12 May 2011

Badreddin Wojokh’s body was in Passaic County, New Jersey, but his mind was in the Golan Heights of 1967. The sun was setting, and the jagged teeth of Manhattan shone a glorious red-gold on the horizon. They made no impression on Wojokh. 


Reviewing:When they come for us we’ll be gone, by Gal Beckerman Harcourt Houghton Mifflin, 2011

“There was a lot of shooting and the Syrian army abandoned the area. That was when the Israeli army took over,” he said, his eyes fixed on mine. In them burned the memory of the last day of the Six-Day War: of the Israelis who had mounted the scarp of Golan, and of the Syrians who had fled before them.

“The Israelis said “our unit is okay but the other ones might not be so good”. It was a psychological tactic. But they did not treat us so bad. I had four sisters and they did nothing shameful to them.”

They did nothing shameful, that is, except scare him and his relatives into leaving their home, and watch them load up their donkeys to leave for Damascus, never to return.

I remembered Wojokh’s story while reading When they come for us we’ll be gone, Gal Beckerman’s history of the triumphant campaign for Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union. The Six-Day War transformed the lives of the book's characters, but turned Wojokh’s world in a very different direction. 

An unexpected, total victory

Israel’s 1967 attack on Egypt, then subsequent strikes on Jordan and Syria, won it control of the Sinai peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and, finally, the Golan Heights. According to estimates published by Haaretz, at least 130,000 people lived on the rolling plateau of the Golan before the war; afterwards, 6,011 lived there. For the Soviet Jews used to state propaganda that extolled the communist state’s Arab allies, such a total victory was totally unexpected. 

Boris Kochubievsky was one of them. Beckerman recounts how the 30-year-old radio engineer was sitting in a lecture at his workplace in Kiev, listening to criticism of Israel, when something inside him snapped. The engineer stood up before the astonished lecturer and demanded the right to reply. Though he knew little of Israel – “which he imagined to be a vast desert filled with camels” – he angrily demanded to know how the government could expect him to make parts for weapons that could be used against his own people.

Israel's victory in the Six-Day war came as a shock to many Soviet Jews used to anti-Israeli propaganda

It was an emotional outburst that changed his life. The KGB started to follow him; his colleagues tried to force him to resign. He hunted for relatives in Israel that could send him an invitation – family reunification then being the only basis for emigration the Soviet government would consider. When he finally found a distant cousin, his application for an exit visa was refused.

“There is no more room for Jewish patience,” he wrote afterwards in a typewritten document passed from dissident to dissident in the USSR’s tiny rebel community. “Silence is the equivalent of death. It was that kind of patience that created Hitler and the likes of him. If we remain silent today, tomorrow will be too late.”

The exultation Kochubievsky felt after Israel’s victory was shared by Jews all across the Soviet Union. KGB agents reported seeing Jews massing outside synagogues. Other Jews opened schools to teach their children the basis of their faith and culture. Jews in Kiev started visiting the World War Two massacre site of Babi Yar.

An unlikely alliance forms...

On the other side of the Atlantic, in the United States, Jewish activists also felt a surge of pride from the Six-Day War. It was one of a range of events in the 1960s that encouraged Jews to be more confident in their own identity: the trial and execution of Adolf Eichman; the success of Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway.  In common with peoples all over the world in that decade, young activists were questioning their leaders and, in America, they were sharply critical of the way Jewish groups had not done more to stop the Holocaust.

In truth, Jews had rarely been – by the admittedly dismal standards of the USSR – unusually discriminated against. They may have lacked the advantages enjoyed by the dominant nationalities, but compared to the misery heaped on the Chechens, the Kalmyks or such unfortunates as the Meskhetian Turks, who are only now beginning to win the right to go home, they did okay

“I’m asking you to do today what Jews didn’t do when the gas chambers were burning,” one activist leader told a crowd in New York. Even the slogan “Never Again” held a veiled rebuke.

In late 1965, another young activist wrote that Jews in the Soviet Union, denied such basic elements of their faith as matzos, were suffering a new Holocaust: a “religious and cultural genocide”. Once more, he said, America’s Jewish groups were doing nothing to prevent the obliteration of their kin.

Following Israel’s 1967 victory, membership of radical groups swelled. They wanted, Beckerman writes, “to emulate the rugged, vigorous Israelis, the new Jews who had, in the most dramatic manner, controlled the direction of history rather than been dragged along by its flow”. And they reached out to their brethren beyond the Iron Curtain, in turn making them a front in the Cold War.

The two largest communities in the Jewish diaspora, therefore, despite knowing almost nothing about each other, became entwined in a common cause. They based their fight on the second clause of Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own”. And they were astonishingly successful.

American activists used massive protests in New York, as well as campaigns of harassment and intimidation against Soviet diplomats. Some attacked Soviet institutions and those they deemed to be collaborators. An incendiary device targeting an impresario who had brought the Bolshoi to New York killed his Jewish secretary. Soviet activists, for whom Jewishness had previously been “a negative identity, a reminder of avenues closed”, taught themselves Hebrew, organised discussion groups and, in one case, attempted to hijack a plane to get out of the USSR.

In truth, Jews had rarely been – by the admittedly dismal standards of the USSR – unusually discriminated against. They may have lacked the advantages enjoyed by the dominant nationalities: the Russians, the Georgians, the Ukrainians. But compared to the misery heaped on the Chechens, the Kalmyks or such unfortunates as the Meskhetian Turks, who are only now beginning to win the right to go home, they did okay.

Jewish emigration became a barometer of the pressure in Soviet-American relations. When the USSR wanted something, the trickle of departures swelled. When relations cooled, the tap was turned off.

The activists’ campaign changed that, however. Yuri Andropov, the KGB chairman throughout the 1970s, lost all sense of proportion and his increasingly deranged anti-semitism saw plots everywhere. Throughout the decade, the proportion of Jews in Moscow universities and colleges halved, while KGB agents disconnected the phones of activists like Natan Sharansky, who were arrested and imprisoned on absurd charges. The Soviet over-reaction coupled with intelligent campaigning and targeted lobbying by Jewish activists in America made human rights, and specifically the right to emigrate, a condition of freer trade with the Soviet Union. The superpower voluntarily hobbled its own interests to support the citizens of another country.

Jewish emigration became a barometer of the pressure in Soviet-American relations. When the USSR wanted something, the trickle of departures swelled. When relations cooled, the tap was turned off.

The Soviet leaders knew they could not afford to lose control over the situation, but lose it they did. As long as they maintained their grip, they could force Jews to remain behind. Soviet Jews were sacked from their jobs, and then somehow had to pay for exit visas and to refund the cost of their education before they could leave. But the Soviet elite was fighting against history on many fronts, and the explosion when it came destroyed it. 

In 1975, Andropov had predicted that allowing free actions by any opponents of the Soviet system “would inevitably lead to further unacceptable demands”. That is exactly what happened, with the Jewish activists leading the charge.

The other half

Beckerman is fulsome in his praise for the triumph, and the quality of his writing was almost enough to carry me with him. “A second exodus meant a second chance,” he writes in his afterword. “American Jews… had not squandered their freedom and prosperity but had used it to defend both the universal and the particular: the human principles they believed in and their tribal instinct to defend their own.”

It is a stirring tale of how the nebulous ideas of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were put into practice to the concrete benefit of millions of people, despite the opposition of a cabal of corrupt old men. Beckerman also concludes his tale with striking passion. But I could not help thinking about Badreddin Wojokh, the old man in New Jersey.  After all, article 13’s second clause – the basis of the Soviet Jewry campaign -- does not stop with the words “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own”. It goes on, after a comma, “and to return to his country”. Beckerman doesn't exactly hide this: he quotes the article in full on page 96. But all of his other references forget that The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the right to return to one’s country as well as the right to leave. 

Of course, Soviet citizens were not overly concerned about the right of return; escaping was generally more what they had in mind. But if the American activists genuinely believed in “universal principles” they would have campaigned for Wojokh’s rights as much as they did for Sharansky’s. Beckerman ignores this, and his glossing over of freedom of movement’s second half does undermine the universal nature of the fight that he praises.

For Badreddin Wojokh and the thousands of other residents of the Golan Heights who lost their homes in the 1967 war that proved so inspirational to the Soviet and American Jews, Article 13 meant nothing. While hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews won the right to leave their country to go to Israel, or America, or anywhere else, Wojokh still does not have the right to go home.


The campaign for Jewish exit visas was brilliantly fought

Indeed, those Soviet immigrants to Israel are now some of the most determined to stop the refugees from gaining protection under the principles they themselves benefited from. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermann, born in Chisinau, Moldova, has, for example, compared Arab members of the Knesset to Nazis: so much for the universal nature of the human rights that rescued him from the Soviet clutch. Liebermann arrived in Israel in 1978, while Wojokh was attempting to build a new life for himself as a refugee in the United States. Wojokh has never been back to the home he lost, just like most of the millions of former residents of what is now Israel who are stuck in Jordan, Gaza, Lebanon and elsewhere.

I visited Wojokh's old home in the Golan Heights in 2008. It was a gorgeous day in late May, and the tawny grasses tossed and rippled in a light breeze. After we mounted the scarp, we stopped to explore a derelict mosque that stood to the right of the road in what had once been the village of Khushniya. For some reason, it had been spared the fate of the houses around it, all of which had been destroyed. Many of their shaped stones had been bulldozed into neat lines of rubble.

We climbed the minaret. It was scarred with bullet holes, and much of the parapet was missing, but I clung on to look out at the rolling plateau. There was no habitation to be seen anywhere. Down in the main prayer hall, graffiti was scrawled across the concrete walls: “death to Arabs” in silver paint; “15/5/1948” – the date of the proclamation of the state of Israel – in charcoal. Camp fires had been lit in the prayer niche, and a whole slab of the roof was hanging off by its steel supports. Despite the graffiti in the mosque, however, that village had not been home to Arabs. It had been one of the islands in the archipelago of villages across the Middle East that is home to people from Russia’s North Caucasus.

Like thousands of others from that village, Wojokh is Circassian, descended from refugees who were themselves driven out by the tsar’s army in 1864 (they ended up in villages in Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel and elsewhere). It was just his bad luck that the village his ancestors chose to live in should be fought over by two other nations a century later. 

But the luck was not all bad. As it happens, his ethnic heritage saved him from a squalid existence as a refugee in Syria, since American organisations arranged for asylum for Circassians in the same way they helped give asylum to anyone who originated in the USSR. In other words, while he lost out under Article 13, he gained from Article 14 -- “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution” – in a way that his Arab neighbours could not, for they could not claim any family tie to the Soviet enemy.

The point is that human rights are only ever partially enforced, and any campaign has to compromise in one way or another. The Soviet Jewry campaign is just a particularly glaring example of the hypocrisy at the core of so much talk of human rights. Beckerman thinks he is writing about a great human rights triumph, and he celebrates the efforts of the brave activists he describes accordingly. Looked at from Wojokh’s perspective, however, their victory was at best an irrelevance and at worst a disaster. The influx of a number of Russian-speaking Jews to Israel made it all the less likely that its government would compromise and return his family’s home.

What this book shows is not the glorious victory of a universal ideal, but instead how brilliantly Jewish activists campaigned to ensure their brethren were first in the queue when that ideal was discussed. While all humans are supposed to have the same rights, in reality those who make the most noise get first dibs on what little fairness there is to go around.

I was introduced to Wojokh by a young American Circassian, as it happens. She and her friends are demanding that the destruction of their nation be recognized, that they be allowed to return to their historical homeland, and that their language and culture be supported.

I shall recommend Beckerman’s book to her. It has some good plays for them to copy.

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