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From Russia with Hope - A Book Review

Hopeless Wars

By Yakov (Yasha) Kedmi

Paperback, 582 pages

Published by ContentNowISBN $19.99

Reviewed by Carl Hoffman

One winter's night in 1969, I found myself among a large group of mostly Jewish young people engaging in a candlelight vigil on Boston Common, not far from the Tremont Street headquarters of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, better known the CJP, Boston's version of similar Jewish advocacy organizations in other U.S. cities. We were demonstrating on behalf of Soviet Jewry, alerting mostly disinterested passersby to what we considered to be their "plight," and demanding that they be allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union. We stood in the cold of a Boston December, sang songs like "Let My People Go," chanted such slogans as "Up Against the Wall, Mother Russia" and listened to speeches by supportive dignitaries like Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke.

For many American Jews in the 1960s and 70s, particularly the majority whose parents and grandparents had come to America from Eastern Europe, the perceived "rescue" of Soviet Jews was an issue of major importance, almost as important as Zionism and the welfare of the State of Israel.

It was with these reflections that I approached this book, Hopeless Wars, by Yakov Kedmi, born Yasha Kazkov in Moscow in 1947. In 1967, at the age of 19, Kedmi became possessed by the idea of leaving the Soviet Union and immigrating to Israel. After a two year concerted effort he succeeded, launching the movement for Aliyah to Israel among Soviet Jews. Kedmi came to Israel, became deeply involved in issues pertaining to soviet Jewish immigration, and eventually became head of Nativ, the organization responsible for the Aliyah of Eastern European Jews.

I was hoping to derive a deeper understanding of what, really, Soviet Jews were being "rescued" from, the persecutions and disabilities they faced in the USSR because of their status as Jews, as well as the struggles and hardships that Jews experienced in their efforts to leave the Soviet Union. It turned out, however, that Hopeless Wars is not that kind of book. As Kedmi writes in his introduction: "Because of security constraints and my focus on the main issues, I have described only events I was directly involved in, with no intention to analyze in depth any of the topics covered in the book. Nor do I claim to have written a full survey of the history of the struggle of Soviet Jewry, but only, as stated, my personal account of the events I took part in."

Working from this perspective, Kedmi has produced a 582-page book in which the first 100 pages are interesting, and the remaining 482 pages are not. The former part of Kedmi's recollections concerns his relentless efforts as a young Muscovite to renounce his Soviet citizenship and leave the country for a new life in Israel. Although we read nothing but Kedmi's own experiences and attitudes—learning virtually nothing about the life he was trying to escape from—this section, detailing what he calls his first "hopeless war", is interesting on an anecdotal level. Kedmi winds up this portion of the narrative as he finally arrives in Israel, becomes embroiled in the politics of Soviet Jewish aliyah, goes to New York on a 'wildcat' effort—unsanctioned by the Israeli government—on behalf of Soviet Jews, and then returns home to Israel. He says, "My return to Israel marked the end of my second hopeless war. It was a war I had not expected—not a war with an enemy, but a war against my country's establishment on behalf of my own country and people. It was a war I was forced to fight against my will, since I would not otherwise have been able to advance the goals for which I had made aliyah."

What follows, in minute detail, are Kedmi's recollections of his continued struggles, his involvement with the organization Nativ; his eventual rise to the leadership of that organization; seemingly endless ideological, methodological and almost Byzantine bureaucratic battles between his organization and virtually every other Israeli government ministry, and his conflicts with a variety of government officials. In my opinion, almost all of this is of very limited interest to anyone other than Kedmi himself and the various officials he names.

Readers willing to plow through these lengthy reminiscences will, however, find some quite worthwhile things, such as Kedmi's experiences as a soldier in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, as well as his personal involvement with and opinions of such figures as Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Menachem Begin and Mikhail Gorbachev. Kedmi also presents a lucid analysis of why so many Soviet Jews, upon their release from the Soviet Union, ultimately chose to seek new lives in the United States, and even in Germany, rather than make aliyah to Israel.

Kedmi ends his book with a very dim assessment of Israel and its prospects for the future. He is particularly vituperative in his opinion of contemporary education here. A large part of the problem, he says, stems from this country's failure to properly utilize the talent and skills of immigrants from the Soviet Union. He tells us, "The most precious human capital in the world is being wasted in an appalling manner. The olim included more than 60,000 teachers, but the Israeli education system, which is deteriorating and locked in a perpetual crisis with a severe shortage of teachers, rejected most of them. Tens of thousands of physicians made aliyah, but the country is facing a terrible shortage of doctors. More than 100,000 engineers came, but we are on the threshold of a shortage in that arena as well. Thousands of scientists of the highest international standing made aliyah, but we are on the verge of an acute shortage of scientists." Our country's failure to respect its immigrants and utilize their skills, Kedmi concludes, places the very future of the State of Israel in doubt.



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