Soviet Jewry

A history of the Zionist movement in the Soviet Union.

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Soviet Jews Going to Israel

Flight to Freedom: Emigrating Soviet Jews line up in
Warsaw, Poland for the last leg of their journey to Israel
(UJA Operation Exodus photograph by Robert A. Cumins).
Credit: National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

Until 1985, a series of increasingly geriatric and autocratic leaders took power and then died one after the other. In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev, a younger and more charismatic leader, was elected as secretary of the party and head of the politburo. Though he began touting his reform programs of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) almost immediately, emigration did not substantially change in his first years. Even once he started meeting with Ronald Reagan, who directly demanded an improvement of the Jewish situation, the first signs of change only came in 1986 when Shcharansky was freed in a prisoner exchange. More prisoners were released the following year, and by the end of 1987 most of the major activists were living in Israel. Soon the floodgates of emigration also opened, as Gorbachev realized that he would have to concede on this issue if he wanted to improve his relations with the West. Between 1987 and 1990, 250,000 had left. A million more would follow.

The Soviet Jewry movement revived a Jewish community that was almost at the point of cultural extinction. It gave focus and support to hundreds of Jews who wanted to live their lives as Jews and knew this was impossible inside the Soviet empire. But it also helped to bring an end to that empire. Though their goal was simply to leave, the Jewish activists, denied their rights as human beings to live wherever they chose, exposed the deceit that lay at the heart of the Communist enterprise.

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Gal Beckerman's first book, When They Come for Us, We?ll Be Gone, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in September 2010. It was named was one of the best books of the year by The New Yorker and the Washington Post, and received both the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. He has written for the New York Times, Boston Globe, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.