Sunday, 1 November 2009

Soviet Jewry - 40 years after


October 2009

40 years have passed since the first National Union of Israeli Students demonstrations organised by a few determined leaders at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, demonstrations which acted as a catalyst to challenge the Israeli Government and Jewish Agency to initiate the worldwide campaign for Soviet Jewry. As always, the heroes remain uncelebrated while others take the credit. "Success has many parents whereas failure is an orphan" and this is one of the greatest success stories of our time.

In May 1969, while both were students at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Yona Yahav, then National Chairman of the National Union of Israeli Students, approached Zvi Raviv asking him to form a committee to take on the concerns of the Jews in Russia who were being persecuted. Raviv was surprised and unaware of the problem so Yona Yahav arranged for them to meet a new Russian immigrant in Tel Aviv. Raviv agreed, on condition that they do not waste the entire night and made dates later in the evening. They went to Tel Aviv where they met Dov (Boris) Sperling. The stories that Sperling told of the situation for Jews in the Soviet Union held them spellbound, so much so that they forgot their dates. Dov told the young men tales of persecution and exile on long train journeys to freezing Siberia, stories which awoke their inherited memory of times not long past when Jews were persecuted then taken on train journeys to the gas chambers.

On their return to Jerusalem they reflected upon the tales of oppression and persecution and they seemed far fetched to the two young men and they spent the next several weeks researching and checking every detail, finding to their amazement that Dov Sperling had not exaggerated one detail. It was all true. What disturbed them even more was that the Government of the State of Israel, well aware of the terrible situation, was doing nothing overt to declare the situation, other than some minor covert activity and polite diplomatic moves.

Zvi and Yonah understood that the need to save the Jews of the Soviet Union was paramount. They began a movement among the students of the Hebrew University. They led the students in demonstrations, carrying huge banners proclaiming "Let My People Go" echoing Moses' biblical proclamation to free the Children of Israel. Their intention to halt studies for one hour by calling out the entire student body to demonstrate disturbed the Dean of the University who called Zvi to his rooms. He told him that they could not demonstrate on University land and disrupt the daily curriculum; the planned hour-long demonstration of tomorrow had to be cancelled. Faced by this force of authority, Raviv simply suggested that if the University banned the demonstration the student body would be called to strike for an entire day. The Dean decided that an hour-long demonstration was preferable.

The one hour student demonstration was broadcast live on the popular show "B'Chatzi ha Yom ( At noon) and the size and volume of the demonstration reached the Secret Services (Shabak) who contacted the three ringleaders telling them to cease and desist from their demonstrations. Undaunted, the three asked for a meeting with the PM. To their surprise the call came to come to the Prime Minister’s Office for a twenty minute meeting. They walked in, three strapping young men, Zvi Raviv, Yona Yahav and Avi Plaskow (z"l) faced by this tiny, but formidable woman. Mrs. Meir explained to them that the Government of Israel had chosen the quiet diplomatic route to help the Jews of the Soviet Union since it was unwise to make waves and endanger the Jews under the communist regime. She then politely dismissed them, believing her words to have hit their target. She was mistaken.

"Mrs Meir", said Raviv, "We will continue demonstrating and carrying posters and sending out postcards, because in twenty years time, when I will have children and they will 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 Mrs Meir 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", Raviv retorted.

"But then we didn't have a country" defended Mrs Meir.

"Now we do", said Raviv.

Raviv incredulously recognised the fear of standing out and standing up as a Jew, right here in the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel. 20 years after the Holocaust, Prime Minister Golda Meir had not yet absorbed the fact that there was a Jewish State and her Diaspora mentality was obsolete. His words had shocked her into acknowledgment.

Mrs. Meir invited them back into her office asking them a hundred questions as to strategy, feasibility, education, absorption of such a large number of possible immigrants. To each question Yona Yahav (currently Mayor of the City of Haifa) pulled out a file of calculations and suggestions. Instead of the 20 minutes allotted to them they stayed in the Prime Minister’s Office for nearly an hour and a half. As they left, feeling justified in their chutzpah, they understood the gravity with which Mrs. Meir took their words when they saw who she kept waiting. Outside her office were a very impatient Vice-Premier Yigal Alon and Head of the Mossad Zvi Zamir, somewhat surprised to see three students leave her office on such warm terms with the PM.

Three days later Mrs Meir’s private personal secretary, Adi Yafe, called Yona Yahav to inform the students’ organisation that a paper had been placed before the Cabinet in a special session and an extraordinary vote had been taken to "go public" in the State of Israel’s fight to save Soviet Jewry and bring them home.

The Prime Minister agreed to appear on the same stage as former Refuseniks and to openly advocate the immigration of Jews from the Soviet Union to Israel. The Government of Israel stood behind its words diplomatically, financially and emotionally

The campaign went world-wide and communities and organisations, including the 35's, began to pressurise the Soviet Government under the banner of "Let My People Go", silent vigils at Russian cultural events, sending post-cards to Russian Embassies demanding the freedom to leave and the wonderful SACSJ "Hands across the Embassies" in London. In 1977 while with Keren Hayesod Zvi organised the first "Yachdav" Mission of young leaders from different 30 countries. He met Avital Scharansky who told him of her husband Anatoly’s imprisonment and impending exile to Siberia. Zvi invited Avital to speak before Yachdav giving her her first platform before an international audience. Avital went on to speak to hundreds of audiences around the world and her determination to free Anatoly (Natan) Scharansky became symbolic of the struggle for all Soviet Jews.

During his time at Keren Hayesod, the fundraising arm of the Jewish Agency, Zvi spoke throughout the world to raise awareness of the plight of the Soviet Jews. He worked with communities in the four corners of the globe to raise funds to enable Jews to come home. The "Let my people go" posters led demonstrations all over the world. The lobbying of international diplomats encouraged Perestroyka and allowed the Jews to leave for home. The dream was fulfilled in 1990 when the trickle of Jews coming home from the FSU became a flood, culminating in over a million new Israeli citizens and over half a million free citizens in other countries of their choice.

In 1991 Zvi Raviv went to Moscow with a group of Keren Hayesod leaders from around the world. As they reached Red Square he took something out of his pocket and unraveled a huge Israeli Flag. The group of people stood to be photographed in Red Square, Moscow proudly flying an Israeli flag, next to the Kremlin, not knowing that the man who set the wheels in motion here in Israel was the one with the flag in his pocket.

Two American tourists passing by were heard to say "Now I have seen everything"!

There are many people throughout the world who worked with zeal and devotion to bring the plight of Soviet Jews to the public notice of their countries – too many to mention, but there was a genesis within Israel that deserves recognition. A genesis that enriched and enlarged our little country with fine scientists, doctors, artists and a whole new generation of Israelis. Israel is a richer country for that day in October 1969 when three students with a great deal of Chutzpah and a strong memory of the unthinkable disaster that befell the silent Jewish people just over 20 years previously, set the wheels of history in motion.

Ultimately the true heroes of this story are the hundreds of Jews within the FSU who spearheaded the fight because they were willing to stand up and speak out for all Soviet Jews and place themselves in unthinkable danger so that they could fulfill their dream to be recognised as Jews with the right to openly practice Judaism and above all, to emigrate to Israel, to come home.


  1. Very interesting, but as you probably now know from private e-mails, the American public campaign for Soviet Jewry actually began in 1963 in Cleveland, Ohio, followed by the establishment of the non-Establishment Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry in April 1964, and the paper Establishment umbrella group, the American Conference on Soviet Jewry, also in April 1964.

    There were multiple pressures on Gold Meir to go public, especially from private delegations of Russian olim in Israel, and a passionate appeal by 18 Soviet Georgian refuseniks, as well as from the Israeli students. The counterpressure was from Israel's secret Liason Bureau (the Lishkat Hakesher) to Soviet Jews, who wanted to keep matters still largely non-public.

    I suggest reading the excellent recent book on the Soviet Jewry movement, which also covers the liberation movement within the USSR, "Triumph Over Tyranny" by Philip Siegel.

    - Glenn Richter
    Co-founder of SSSJ

  2. Dear Glenn, Thank you for your comment. I was not trying to detract from the incredible work by others in all four corners of the world - not just the USA. I was telling the history of how Israel began her open and highly effective Governmental campaign to ensure the release of Jews in the FSU to emigrate to Israel; a campaign which of itself created a positive "domino effect" throughout the world.

    The fact that work began previous to 1969 is not under dispute - indeed Zvi's own grandfather, Rabbi Zvi Rybak, travelled from Bialystok in Poland to the USA in 1926 to speak on this very subject. The problem, and the attempt to solve it, was not new.

    There was pressure from Georgians and other Olim, who were unable to get past the terrible but powerful advice of both the Shabak and Lishkat ha Kesher, but it was three students with incredible Chutzpah who finally swayed Golda Meir and changed the policy ultimately allowing Jews to emigrate.
    This was an incredible triumph, a national landmark decision, and one made by the Prime Minister of the State of Israel, the country to which the Refuseniks wanted to come - home.

  3. I looked up your website Glenn. It says nothing of the students in Israel or anywhere else in the world!

  4. This is for Yisrael Medad
    If you notice I have not claimed that there were no demonstrations or that there was no activity before that date- on the contrary I give credit to all who did exceptional work. The problem was that even witht he weight of Geula Cohen they did not manage to persuade the Government to change their policy.
    What I say - and say clearly I hope - is that through that demonstration organised by Zvi Raviv and Yonah Yahav and the subsequent meeting with Golda Meir, the Israeli government was finally forced into an all out effort.
    As I said "Success has many parents whereas failure is an orphan" and this particular phase in the fight was their success.

  5. Just incidentally if we are demanding acceptance of the genesis of the Soviet Jewry Campaigns- Zvi's grandfather, Rabbi Zvi Rybak, travelled to the USA and Europe to lecture on this very subject in 1929!!! It was Rabbi Zvi
    Rybak's grandson and two friends who conquered the indomitable lady and the Campaign set off on its incredible journey.

  6. To please every one |I changed the first paragraph since it was apparently misunderstood but stand by every single word of my letter.