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Reviewed by:
  • From Exodus to Freedom: A History of the Soviet Jewry Movement
  • Fred A. Lazin (bio)
From Exodus to Freedom: A History of the Soviet Jewry Movement. By Stuart Altshuler. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005. xv + 213 pp.

The title of the book suggests an in-depth account of the Soviet Jewry movement in the United States between the years 1985 to 1991. Unfortunately, Stuart Altshuler fails to deliver an analysis of the policies and strategies of the grassroots and establishment Jewish organizations in that movement. Instead he presents a personal account and polemic.

His treatment of establishment organizations is inadequate. He fails to present an accurate picture of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ), its policies and operations. He correctly notes the role of the Israeli Liaison Bureau. He fails, however, to understand that by the 1980s the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), rather than the NCSJ and the Israelis, set policy on Soviet Jewry for the American Jewish establishment.

His shallow scholarship is evident in his treatment of the freedom of choice debate. The author sets up a conflict, pitting the Union of Councils, the umbrella association of grassroots organizations, and all Soviet dissidents supporting the right of Soviet Jewish émigrés to choose where to resettle against the American Jewish establishment favoring the Israeli position of having all Jews resettle in Israel (aliyah). Reality was more complex and nuanced, and positions sometimes changed from year to year. In 1976, for example, the American Jewish establishment including the CJF, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), American Jewish Committee, and others supported freedom of choice against Prime Minister Rabin's demand that HIAS and the JDC cease aiding Soviet émigrés who preferred to resettle in the United States. In 1987, when Prime Minister Shamir asked the United States to deny Soviet Jews refugee status, the CJF responded that there was a clear consensus among American Jewish leaders and organizations "that indicates that American Jews will not undertake such an assignment—quite to the contrary, American Jewish leaders and organizations will continue to be committed to more liberal United States immigration and refugee policies and will seek to have such policies implemented on all United States government levels."1 In the case of the Israelis, Altshuler [End Page 91] fails to mention that several leaders and 30 to 40 percent of the citizens favored freedom of choice. Even an ideological hardliner like Prime Minister Menachem Begin sometimes put family reunification before immigration in dealing with Soviet Jewish émigrés. Finally, not all Soviet émigrés and dissidents favored freedom of choice.

His treatment of the Union of Councils is also disappointing. One wonders why he did not make better use of its archives. The book reads more like a personal memoir of an activist. While interesting it does not give the reader a clear picture of the origin, development, and changes in policies and positions of the Union of Councils.

The credibility of the account is undercut by the lack of citations and references. For example, he makes a serious charge of Israel's neglect of Soviet Jews, a "fairly consistent historical pattern dating back to the 1920s" (132). Yet few, if any, sources are provided. This is also true of his treatment of the important issue of why many assimilated Soviet Jews emigrated after 1968. The author, citing only the view of one fellow American activist, concludes that emigration was attributable to their desire to be free as Jews. There is no discussion or reference to the literature on the motivation of émigrés to support his view or even mention of the contrary view which suggests that many émigrés left in search of better economic opportunities for themselves and their children.

Similarly Altshuler provides little or no evidence to prove the effectiveness of the Union of Councils. His assertions about the importance of the grassroots organizations in the struggle for Soviet Jewry in the United States may well be factually supported, but Altshuler's informal citations, like that of a State Department official speaking at a banquet honoring the Union of Councils, demonstrates his failure to cite objective sources...


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pp. 91-93
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