“My family fled the Soviet Union when I was three and a half years old. Upon arriving in New York City in 1979, my father worked multiple jobs to support us, all the while learning English at night. He stressed to us the importance of fully integrating into our adopted country. For many years, life was quite difficult. In spite of our challenging beginnings, my family worked to build its own American dream.”
That capsule life history was part of the prepared remarks provided to three House committees by Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who has now shaken up the impeachment investigation into President Donald Trump by corroborating the account of a whistleblower who said the president and others sought to pressure Ukraine to take action against Trump’s political opponents.
Reading Vindman’s remarks, I was struck by how impossible his biography would be anywhere but the United States of America. And I was also struck by the irony of the attacks that emerged against Vindman on Tuesday, implying that his roots in then-Soviet Ukraine make his loyalty to the United States suspect: They sounded so similar to attitudes about Jews in the Soviet Union that drove his family to flee here in the first place.
If you know any Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants — people like me, and people like Vindman — chances are you have encountered engineers, mathematicians and programmers. It’s not a coincidence. Like other Jewish communities around the world, Soviet Jews prized education and accomplishment. But unlike American Jews in the second half of the 20th century, Jews in the Soviet Union found that entire professions were functionally closed off to them. Especially those related to national security.
These restrictions dated back decades. After the 1917 revolution, czarist-era discriminatory policies against Jews were lifted, and many Soviet Jews embraced the opportunities afforded to them under the new Communist regime. Despite policies that violently suppressed religious and ethnic expression … millions of Soviet Jews embraced the Russian language and culture as their own. They assimilated into Soviet culture [and] pursued careers in academia, security and foreign affairs with vigor to contribute to a nation that, for the first time, afforded them real opportunities, even as those opportunities came with a tremendous cost.
But in the 1930s under Joseph Stalin, a brutal dictator who would later pursue more violently anti-Semitic policies, the merit-based system began to erode. Fields that were sensitive for national security such as diplomacy, intelligence and foreign trade began correcting for Jews being “overrepresented” by shutting their doors to Jewish applicants.
Anti-Semitic beliefs about the true loyalty of Jews were widespread in the Soviet Union, as they had been in pre-revolutionary Russia, and many of these discriminatory, paranoid policies were retained long after Stalin had been repudiated. The doors left open in their wake were opened haphazardly and were limited to nonpolitical pursuits such as science and technology. The message to Jews was clear: You will never be a real Soviet.
… In the Soviet Union, it was clear to over 1.5 million Jews who eventually escaped that the answer was no — Jews had no future there. Like countless others who made the life-changing choice to come to America, the Soviet Jews who fled here sought a better life for themselves and their children.
Vindman’s family arrived in 1979, and they found exactly what they were looking for. Here, the son of a poor refugee can become a decorated Army officer who serves his country with honor. He can attend his nation’s most prestigious university. He can have a Jewish wedding while wearing his nation’s uniform and see no contradiction between the two. And he can become a policy adviser serving at the highest levels of government.
But now partisan attacks against Vindman are trafficking in prejudices that are all too familiar for Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union. As former Republican congressman and now CNN contributor Sean P. Duffy said: “We all have an affinity to our homeland where we came from. … He has an affinity for the Ukraine.”
Duffy later walked back his comments. But a whole host of attacks that call Vindman’s loyalty into question and accuse him of treason for speaking the languages of the region he fled as a child and ensuring American national security interests are pursued have now been levied at a man who received a Purple Heart for wounds sustained after an IED attack in Iraq.
These attacks are disgraceful not just because they are directed at a man with a textbook patriotic biography, not just because they open old wounds for Soviet Jewish refugees, not because they echo centuries-old slurs against Jews the world over. They’re also disgraceful because they play into the propaganda of countries such as Russia, which are intent on pursuing an aggressive foreign policy at the expense of neighboring nations such as Ukraine. They accomplish it by muddying the waters and distracting from international criticisms with whataboutisms such as telling the world that there’s nothing exceptional about America.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman has lived a life that would be unimaginable even very recently to Russian-speaking Jews. His accomplishments, achieved while committing his professional life to serving our nation, are a testament to what is possible in America when we live up to the ideals that attracted millions of immigrants from every corner of the globe to this great nation. In his remarks on Capitol Hill, Vindman said: “I am a patriot, and it is my sacred duty and honor to advance and defend OUR country, irrespective of party or politics.” Partisan critics demonizing this immigrant, among many others they have demonized, would do well to instead follow a true patriot’s example.