A Fictional Treatment of Soviet-Jewish Dissidents Pursues a Literary “Vendetta” against Those Who Were Too Jewish

Paul Goldberg’s novel The Dissident is set in Moscow in the 1970s and tells the story of two Jews who fall in love while participating in that decade’s dissident movement. It’s also a murder mystery. While it is “at times a charming and lyrical work, capable of transporting readers into a Moscow winter or into the giddiness of falling in love,” Nadia Kalman observes, “its intentions point in a different and more didactic direction.” Complete with detailed footnotes, the book does much to impress on the reader that it aims to convey something of Soviet Jewish history, rather than simply spin a good tale. And in this regard, Kalman believes it fails:

Shortly before the book’s conclusion, we meet a couple of unpleasant Jewish dissidents, a sort of reverse-mirror image of [the main characters], Viktor and Oksana. Vladimir Lensky and his wife, Olga Lenskaya, are religiously observant and rule-bound, petty minded and prejudiced. They’re rude to Oksana, and they don’t get [Mikhail] Bulgakov’s classic novel The Master and Margarita. They also turn out to be axe murderers.

When Lensky is found out, we learn that he was under orders from the Mossad to prevent Jewish involvement in human rights groups: “No more Jewish blood on goyish altars.” In contrast, all those characters who are broadly tolerant of religions and sexualities (in a way that is hard to believe even of most dissidents of that era) and focused on universal human rights turn out to be entirely innocent.

This tendency to draw moral distinctions between characters based on their ideologies goes some way toward explaining what otherwise seems like a mysterious novelistic vendetta against the so-called Leningrad group, real-life Jewish dissidents with little connection to the novel’s events. Members of the group focused their protests on a distinctly Jewish goal, that of making aliyah, rather than on the broader goal of human rights, and perhaps this is part of the reason why the novel keeps hauling them in for tongue-lashings.

In [short], this novel seems to be saying something like this: anti-Semitic persecutions usually don’t go too badly for us Jews, so instead of being narrowly, even selfishly, focused on our own safety and freedom, we should widen our gaze and devote our energies to more universal matters.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Jewish literature, Soviet Jewry


Israel Can’t Stake Its Fate on “Ironclad” Promises from Allies

Israeli tanks reportedly reached the center of the Gazan city of Rafah yesterday, suggesting that the campaign there is progressing swiftly. And despite repeatedly warning Jerusalem not to undertake an operation in Rafah, Washington has not indicated any displeasure, nor is it following through on its threat to withhold arms. Even after an IDF airstrike led to the deaths of Gazan civilians on Sunday night, the White House refrained from outright condemnation.

What caused this apparent American change of heart is unclear. But the temporary suspension of arms shipments, the threat of a complete embargo if Israel continued the war, and comments like the president’s assertion in February that the Israeli military response has been “over the top” all call into question the reliability of Joe Biden’s earlier promises of an “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security. Douglas Feith and Ze’ev Jabotinsky write:

There’s a lesson here: the promises of foreign officials are never entirely trustworthy. Moreover, those officials cannot always be counted on to protect even their own country’s interests, let alone those of others.

Israelis, like Americans, often have excessive faith in the trustworthiness of promises from abroad. This applies to arms-control and peacekeeping arrangements, diplomatic accords, mutual-defense agreements, and membership in multilateral organizations. There can be value in such things—and countries do have interests in their reputations for reliability—but one should be realistic. Commitments from foreign powers are never “ironclad.”

Israel should, of course, maintain and cultivate connections with the United States and other powers. But Zionism is, in essence, about the Jewish people taking responsibility for their own fate.

Read more at JNS

More about: Israeli Security, Joseph Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship