Opening the USSR’s gates
Surprisingly, part of the struggle for Soviet Jewry was winning over the Israeli government
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.
‘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.
THE ISRAELI public demands the release of Soviet Jews.