Open­ing the USSR’s gates

Sur­pris­ingly, part of the strug­gle for Soviet Jewry was win­ning over the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By URI MILSTEIN

Al­most ex­actly 50 years ago, 250 new im­mi­grants ar­rived in Is­rael from the Soviet Union. In Oc­to­ber 1968, Jews be­gan trick­ling out of the “Com­mu­nist Gar­den of Eden.” Over the years, this num­ber snow­balled, fi­nally reaching a to­tal of 3.5 mil­lion. This phe­nom­e­non strength­ened the State of Is­rael, and ac­cord­ing to his­to­rian Dr. Michael Bron­stein, it also un­der­mined peo­ple’s faith in the Com­mu­nist su­per­power and was one of the fac­tors that led to the even­tual collapse of the Soviet Bloc.

Three young Israelis had a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on this his­toric oc­cur­rence: Yonah Ya­hav, who at the time was a law stu­dent at He­brew Univer­sity and the chair of the Is­rael Stu­dent Union, and the out­go­ing mayor of Haifa; Zvi Ra­viv, who was a his­tory and po­lit­i­cal sci­ence ma­jor in Jerusalem and pres­i­dent of the Stu­dent Union Con­fer­ence, and to­day sits on the Jewish Agency Board of Di­rec­tors; and Avi Plaskov, who was a stu­dent in the Mid­dle East Stud­ies De­part­ment at Tel Aviv Univer­sity, Ya­hav’s deputy in the stu­dent union and head of its For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee.

Leah Slovin, a lawyer, jour­nal­ist and politi­cian who will soon turn 90, was one of the most prominent re­fuseniks to be re­leased from the Soviet Union. Since 1958, Slovin had been work­ing to open the gates of the Soviet Union to al­low the Jews to em­i­grate.

“They called us the ‘Jews of Si­lence,’ but that should have been what they called the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment, since not only were they not ac­tively help­ing to open the gates, they tried to si­lence us,” Slovin re­calls.

“In 1966,” con­tin­ues Slovin, “we re­ceived in­tel that the Is­raeli cul­tural at­taché in Moscow had ar­rived in Minsk. I found out what ho­tel he was stay­ing at and I went there first thing in the morn­ing. I found him eating break­fast in the din­ing hall and I asked him to meet me out­side in a few min­utes. About 10 min­utes later, he met me in the nearby park. I told him that we were prepar­ing to is­sue an ap­peal to the Amer­i­can Jewish com­mu­nity to pres­sure the US gov­ern­ment to act in our be­half, and de­mand that our Soviet cit­i­zen­ship be re­voked. I made it clear that we knew we would be imprisoned for this. When he heard this, his face turned pale. Af­ter a mo­ment, he told me that they ap­pre­ci­ated us very much, but that we didn’t need to go to jail.

“I re­sponded, ‘In Is­rael, you send sol­diers to the front and en­dan­ger their lives. This is our front and we’re will­ing to take the risk.’ Then his tone changed, and he said to me, ‘I can­not tell you every­thing – I my­self don’t know every­thing. But you must tell your friends that if you do this, you will dam­age re­la­tions be­tween Is­rael and the Soviet Union.’ I re­turned to Riga and told my re­fusenik com­rades about my con­ver­sa­tion with the at­taché, and in the end we de­cided not to do any­thing.”

How did the Six Day War af­fect you?

“Af­ter the war, ac­tiv­ity among Jews in the Soviet Union in­ten­si­fied greatly, and yet Soviet au­thor­i­ties did not dare to sup­press their ac­tions as they had dur­ing Stalin’s rule. The Sovi­ets be­lieved that if they al­lowed the prominent ac­tivists to em­i­grate to Is­rael, the level of ac­tiv­ity would sub­side. In Au­gust 1968, KGB head Yuri An­dropov and for­eign min­is­ter An­drei Gromyko for­mu­lated a doc­u­ment on the sub­ject, which they sub­mit­ted to the Com­mu­nist Party’s cen­tral com­mit­tee. They wrote that the de­par­ture of 1,500 re­fuseniks ‘would be lauded worldwide as a hu­man­i­tar­ian step that would en­able us to be rid of peo­ple who held na­tion­al­is­tic ide­olo­gies that were ad­versely af­fect­ing their en­vi­ron­ment.’”

A few months later, in Oc­to­ber 1968, the first 250 re­fuseniks im­mi­grated to Is­rael. One of them was Boris Dov Sch­per­ling, who would later spur Ya­hav and his fel­low stu­dents. It soon be­came clear that An­dropov and Gromyko had made a huge mis­take: Let­ting the 1,500 ac­tivists out did not lessen ac­tiv­ity, but in­stead helped to in­crease it.

Slovin and her hus­band made aliyah with their chil­dren and par­ents in Fe­bru­ary 1969, and she im­me­di­ately be­gan work­ing to­gether with Sch­per­ling and Yasha Kaza­kov (a.k.a. Ja­cob Kedmi) in an ef­fort to pres­sure the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment to lead a worldwide cam­paign to al­low Soviet Jews to em­i­grate to Is­rael. They met with op­po­si­tion leader Me­nachem Be­gin and with Yitzhak Shamir, who hadn’t yet en­tered pol­i­tics. The two of them re­ceived the new Israelis with open arms and set about help­ing them. They didn’t, how­ever, suc­ceed in con­vinc­ing prime min­is­ter Golda Meir to change the pol­icy of si­lence. Ac­cord­ing to Slovin, they reached the con­clu­sion that the only way to win over Golda was to re­cruit the stu­dent union.

“In May 1969, I was study­ing law at the He­brew Univer­sity,” re­calls Ya­hav. “I was sit­ting in my apart­ment one evening prepar­ing for an exam when the phone rang. The per­son on the other end of the line told me in a hodge­podge of He­brew, Rus­sian and Yid­dish, ‘We are a few young peo­ple, with Yasha Kaza­kov as our leader. We are sit­ting now in an apart­ment in Ra­mat Aviv and we are ask­ing that you come here now to speak with us.’ I ex­plained that I was in the mid­dle of study­ing for an im­por­tant exam, but he replied, ‘No. You must come now.’

“I thought they were pulling my leg, be­cause I’d just read an ar­ti­cle in Ma’ariv the week be­fore about a Jew named Yasha Kaza­kov who had burned his Soviet ID card in the square out­side the Krem­lin in protest at not be­ing al­lowed to em­i­grate. So how was it pos­si­ble that he was here al­ready? ‘That’s the prob­lem’ said the voice on the phone, ‘that no one knows we’re here al­ready! Yasha has been here since Fe­bru­ary, but the Is­raeli cen­sor won’t al­low this in­for­ma­tion to be pub­lished in the news­pa­per. We be­lieve the stu­dent union can help us rec­tify this sit­u­a­tion.’

So, what did you do?

“I im­me­di­ately called Avi Plaskov, who was the head of the For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee. I went to pick him up in Ra­mat Gan in my Fiat 600 and we set off for Ra­mat Aviv. When we en­tered the spar­tan apart­ment, Sch­per­ling stood up and in­tro­duced him­self, ‘I’m the one who called you. I’m Boris. I’d like to in­tro­duce you to Yasha Kaza­kov.”

“Are you re­ally Kaza­kov?” I asked him. “‘Yes,’” he replied. ‘You need to help us put pres­sure on the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment to join the worldwide Let My Peo­ple Go cam­paign. The lo­cal li­ai­son of­fice that is sup­posed to help win the re­lease of Soviet Jews is do­ing the ex­act op­po­site. The Is­raeli of­fi­cials told us that they promised the Sovi­ets that they’d re­main quiet. The USSR is di­vided into three sec­tions – the KGB, the gov­ern­ment and the Com­mu­nist Party – and we need to fol­low the method of di­vide and con­quer. If your stu­dent gov­ern­ment protests the gov­ern­ment in­ac­tion, we will be able to achieve our goal.’

“So I promised him that I’d convene an emer­gency meet­ing with the univer­sity pres­i­dents and up­date them. When I did, ev­ery­one was com­pletely shocked. I ex­plained that we’d been asked to lead a protest against the gov­ern­ment pol­icy of re­main­ing quiet. There was ve­he­ment op­po­si­tion to this course of ac­tion, and so I re­al­ized I’d have to bring Sch­per­ling and Kaza­kov to come tell their story first­hand. When they did, ev­ery­one in the room had been con­vinced beyond a doubt.”

What was your next step?

“Be­cause the cen­sor wouldn’t let us write about the is­sue in the univer­sity news­pa­per, I came up with a scheme to cir­cum­vent this ob­sta­cle. I told the ed­i­tor, David Kolitz, to print a com­pletely black page on the cover of the next is­sue and to write at the top: “Pro­hib­ited by the Cen­sor.” This made a big splash and

na­tional pa­pers even printed a story that deputy prime min­is­ter Yi­gal Al­lon had sug­gested that Golda send me on re­serve duty to Si­nai for three months in an ef­fort to thwart our goals.”

Ya­hav ap­pointed fel­low stu­dent Zvi Ra­viv as co­or­di­na­tor of ac­tiv­i­ties for the Jews of the Soviet Union.

“We de­cided to hold the demon­stra­tion at the en­trance of the univer­sity,” re­calls Ra­viv. “We set up a mi­cro­phone and speak­ers and a large ban­ner that said, “Let My Peo­ple Go.” A young stu­dent named Me­nashe Raz ap­proached me and told me he’d just started work­ing for a ra­dio sta­tion and would I ob­ject if he broad­cast the demon­stra­tion. I jumped at the op­por­tu­nity and made space for him. Three stu­dents got up to speak: Amos Aha­roni, Sch­per­ling and my­self. I could see in stu­dents’ eyes that they were moved by our words. At the end, we spon­ta­neously be­gan singing “Hatik­vah” and the feel­ing was very strong.

“The next day, Yonah called to tell me that a Shin Bet agent had con­tacted him with a mes­sage to the ring­leaders: Cease and de­sist. In the end, we suc­ceeded in ob­tain­ing a meet­ing at the Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice. As the three of us walked into the room, we saw Golda sit­ting in a black arm­chair be­hind a large desk with noth­ing on it ex­cept for a pack of cig­a­rettes and an ash­tray. Also present at the meet­ing were Sim­cha Dinitz and Sh­muel Shiloh, who was tak­ing min­utes. Golda opened say­ing, ‘The prob­lem is not the Jews of the Soviet Union. The prob­lem is the Zion­ist youth of to­day. Yonah took a file from his brief­case and pre­sented her with a re­port from a sym­po­sium held by the stu­dent union. Then Golda stated that the prob­lem was so­cial gaps. Once again Yonah took out a po­si­tion pa­per on the sub­ject that had been pre­pared by the stu­dent union. Again and again this hap­pened.

“Af­ter 15 min­utes, Golda stood up, lit a ci­garette and told us, ‘Thank you for com­ing,’ thus bring­ing the meet­ing to a close,” con­tin­ues Ra­viv. “I said, ‘Mrs. Meir, we will con­tinue demon­strat­ing and car­ry­ing plac­ards and send­ing out post­cards, be­cause in 20 years’ time, when I have chil­dren and they ask me what I did to save the Jews of the Soviet Union, I want to have an an­swer, un­like my fa­ther’s gen­er­a­tion who did noth­ing and so we lost six mil­lion Jews.’ ‘You do not know your his­tory, young man,’ re­sponded Golda, sur­prised at this in­so­lence. ‘We sent in para­troop­ers.’ ’Ac­tu­ally, ma’am, I am a his­tory ma­jor. We sent in 37 para­troop­ers, most of whom did not man­age to reach the ground safely,’ I re­torted. ‘But then we didn’t have a coun­try,’ de­fended Golda. ‘And now we do,’ I replied.”

She sat back down heav­ily and asked what we wanted, and thus the meet­ing started anew. I had the feel­ing that the prime min­is­ter had fi­nally let down her guard. I told her that we wanted her to join our stu­dent protest that was sched­uled for De­cem­ber 2 in Tel Aviv. When we left her of­fice, we had no idea if we’d suc­ceeded or not, but a few days later I re­ceived a phone call from MK Adi Yafeh, her di­rec­tor gen­eral. He told me, ‘We’ve reached two de­ci­sions. One, to ini­ti­ate a pub­lic strug­gle to bring Soviet Jews to Is­rael, and two, to al­low mem­bers of Knes­set to speak at the rally.’ I told Yafeh, ‘Great! Bring Golda to the mass protest in Malchei Yis­rael Square.’”


YONAH YA­HAV, who would go on to be the longserv­ing mayor of Haifa, in 1972.

(Fritz Cohen)

‘YASHA KAZA­KOV, we are with you!’ pro­claims a ban­ner, as Kaza­kov – sur­rounded by friends and sup­port­ers – ar­rives in Is­rael from New York at the end of a hunger strike.

(Moshe Mil­ner Pho­tog­ra­phy)

THE IS­RAELI pub­lic de­mands the re­lease of Soviet Jews.

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