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What Lt. Col. Vindman’s critics get wrong about Jews who fled the Soviet Union

To criticize his impeachment testimony, Republicans suggest there was a country called Ukraine in the 1970s.

- November 19, 2019

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council director for European affairs, is testifying Tuesday before the House Intelligence Committee in the impeachment inquiry. Vindman was on the phone line during the call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that has stirred up so much controversy.

Several Republicans have attacked Vindman, suggesting that his loyalties are mixed, as he was born a Soviet Jew in Ukraine. Conservative pundits Laura Ingraham and John Yoo, for example, suggested that Vindman — who received a Purple Heart medal for his actions in Iraq — may be a Ukrainian double agent. Former Republican congressman Sean P. Duffy said on CNN that Vindman “is incredibly concerned about Ukrainian defense. I don’t know that he’s concerned about American policy. … We all have an affinity to our homeland where we came from. … He has an affinity for the Ukraine.”

Accusing someone of split loyalties is a long-standing xenophobic and anti-Semitic trope. In this particular case, the accusation misunderstands the underlying reality that Soviet Jewish immigrants like Vindman are more likely to vote Republican and support Trump than the average American. They are unlikely to feel attached or be “simpatico” toward the ex-Soviet country of their birth.

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Here are four things to know about the political attitudes of Soviet Jewish immigrants to the United States.

1. Why Russian and Soviet Jews came to America

Before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the Russian Empire’s anti-Semitic segregation policies trapped Jews in the “Pale of Settlement,” a region roughly comprising present-day Belarus, Lithuania, eastern Poland, Ukraine and Moldova. Having anti-Semitism as the official state policy resulted in the exodus of millions of Jews.

Anti-Semitism under the Soviet Union flowed under the regime’s anti-religious policies. Jews were murdered during the Stalinist purges in the name of ridding the U.S.S.R. of “class traitors” and religious fanatics. The Soviet Union forcibly repressed the expression of all things Jewish, and Jewish culture all but disintegrated.

The years after Stalin’s rule witnessed a resurgence of Jewish identity in underground literature (samizdat). This laid the groundwork for the immigration of Soviet Jews to the United States in two waves.

Nascent Soviet Jewish national identity drove the first wave in the early 1970s. Between 1970 and 1974, tens of thousands of Jews applied for and were denied exit visas — rendering them political prisoners in their own country. The government then denied these refuseniks, as they were called, housing and the ability to work in their field of expertise.

As word of the refusenik cause reached the West via letter-writing campaigns and protests, the United States changed its trade laws, enacting the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Act of 1974 to pressure countries economically if they limited movement and emigration. As a result, and with the aid of American civil society organizations such as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the Soviet Union began to grant visas to Jews who wanted to relocate to the United States.

2. Anti-Semitism shaped the political attitudes of the refuseniks

The trauma of religious repression, anti-Semitism and denial of the right to self-identify that defined the experience of Soviet Jews shaped the refusenik generation’s political attitudes. They were staunchly anti-communist, Zionist and pro-American. During this wave, no one would take the risk of applying to emigrate unless they felt truly desperate. Vindman and his family left Ukraine in 1979 — the generation that was that desperate.

This wave of immigration dissipated in about six years. But Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) policies in the late-1980s and the subsequent fall of the Soviet Union allowed a second, larger wave of hundreds of thousands of Jews to leave their homes for a new life in the United States. Compared with the first wave of emigres, this wave was less politically motivated and welcomed less enthusiastically. Still, the trauma of Jewish life in the Soviet Union instilled anti-communist, Zionist and pro-American attitudes in this community, as well.

3. Jewish emigres tend to identify as Americans

Most Jewish immigrants like Vindman have kept very few, if any, ties to their place of birth. Those who left before the fall of the U.S.S.R. lost all records of citizenship under Soviet law once they applied for an exit visa. Given their history of political persecution, ex-Soviet Jews are much more likely to identify as Jews rather than as Ukrainians, Belarusians, Russians or Georgians.

Furthermore, Ukraine did not exist as an independent state until 1991. In 1979, when Vindman left what is now the country of Ukraine, he was 3 years old; another 12 years passed before Ukraine gained its independence. The claim that Vindman is loyal to the country that now presides over his place of birth would imply, implausibly, that his family imparted nationalism to a subnational entity in which they were an ethnic minority.

Trump says he was looking for corruption in Ukraine — where Zelensky had long been mocking corruption in Ukraine.

4. Former Soviet Jews are more likely to be Republican

Conservatives’ accusations that Vindman is part of a “deep state” conspiracy against the president ignore something else important about the political attitudes of former Soviet Jews. The Jews’ painful history of persecution in the Soviet Union means that Soviet-born Jewish Americans are more likely to support the Republican Party and Trump than the Democrats.

Having lived as an ethnic and religious minority under an anti-religion and anti-Jewish regime, many Soviet Jews overwhelmingly support Trump’s pro-Israel, anti-socialist platform. As Sam Kliger, the director of Russian-Jewish community affairs at the American Jewish Committee, told the Atlantic, Soviet Jewish immigrants “have experienced socialism and communism in a totalitarian regime. Anything that remotely resembles that, they hate it, they despise it.”

To suggest that Vindman’s testimony results from allegiance to his “Ukrainian” background is inaccurate and ahistorical.

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Matthew Simkowitz (@MattSimkowitz) is a political science major at Skidmore College.

Yelena Biberman is an assistant professor of political science at Skidmore College, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and author of “Gambling with Violence: State Outsourcing of War in Pakistan and India” (Oxford University Press, 2019).