In America and Israel, the Story of Soviet Jewry Is Being Rapidly Forgotten

April 13 2020

In 2016, Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov produced a documentary about the daring 1970 escape attempt—in which her parents were key players—that kicked off the refusenik movement in the Soviet Union and, just as importantly, the mass-movement among American Jews to help their coreligionists behind the Iron Curtain. To her great surprise, Zalmanson-Kuznetsov discovered during screenings of her film and other public events that few Israeli or American Jewish teenagers had any knowledge of the refuseniks or their plight. Izabella Tabarovsky comments:

Part of the problem . . . is most certainly a failure to make the story of Soviet Jewry relevant to new generations of Jews, who have an obvious need for a story of an extraordinary rebirth of Jewish identity in a part of the Diaspora that many had assumed was destined for cultural and spiritual annihilation. Behind the heroic grand narrative of a resistance struggle in a country that no longer exists on maps is a story about the why and how of the process of Jewish rediscovery which is both inherently powerful and also worthy of present-day re-exploration and transmission.

While American teenagers today might find it difficult to relate to a story of the harassment of activist Jews by Soviet state police and imprisonment in the gulag, for each refusenik who experienced those ghastly hardships there were dozens whose drama was seemingly more prosaic yet more relatable. Kicked out of their jobs and familiar social circles, pushed to the margins of society, stuck in refusal for years and even decades, these largely assimilated Jews had to reinvent their lives in their newly narrowed circumstances.

What is so compelling about the refuseniks’ story today is that so many of them chose to define themselves by delving into their Jewish identities and finding sources of strength, motivation, and optimism there. From friends of friends, they dug out the addresses of old men who had the secret knowledge of the Torah. They studied with them, then in turn taught others. Under the guise of camping, they organized expeditions to Holocaust mass graves and ḥasidic sites and reported to others on what they saw.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: Refuseniks, Soviet Jewry, Soviet Union

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy