Soviet aliyah pioneer reflects on Russia's past, present, future

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Click photo to download. Caption: President Reagan and Vice President Bush meet with Avital Sharansky (wife of then-jailed Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky) and Yosef Mendelevich, May 28, 1981. Credit: White House.

Members of the Russian Pussy Riot punk band were recently convicted for “hooliganism” after performing a song protesting against the Russian Orthodox Church and the government of President Vladimir Putin. The subsequent trial was widely seen in the West as a violation of human rights and free speech.

Two of the band’s women were sent to serve a two-year sentence in remote Russian penal colonies reminiscent of the old Soviet Gulags. Yosef Mendelevich, a famous Jewish refusenik, can definitely relate.

Mendelevich—whose memoir, “Unbroken Spirit,” was translated into English this year—led a Zionist movement of Soviet Jews who sought the freedom to emigrate to Israel at a time when it was considered a treasonous act against the Soviet state. In 1970 he and a group of fellow Jews planned to hijack an airplane, escaping to Sweden and ultimately to Israel, but were arrested before the plan could be executed. Mendelevich was imprisoned, but efforts from abroad finally secured his release after 11 tough years in the Soviet Gulag. Afterward he emigrated to Israel.

Through the actions of refuseniks like Mendelevich, millions of Jews were ultimately granted permission to leave the USSR over the coming decades. In the following exclusive interview conducted, edited and translated from Hebrew by JNS.org, Mendelevich—who visited Boston in October—reflects on his life, his choices, the Jewish state and Russia today.

JNS.org: You grew up as a secular Jew.  Why did you decide to risk your life and attempt to escape the USSR to Israel by hijacking an airplane?

Yosef Mendelevich: It’s important to remember that Latvian Jews of that generation were the first to assimilate because they became inhabitants of the Soviet Union only during World War II. I was born after the war in the Soviet Union but my parents had had a different education. Nevertheless my father was not a religious Jew, and neither was my mother, and in my view this represented a larger process of stepping away from Judaism by all European Jews. I was born in a family that was not observant but they at least knew some things about the traditions of the faith, and somehow that trickled down to me. The atmosphere was therefore still Jewish, similar in many ways to the atmosphere in secular American Jewish families that live with grandparents that speak Yiddish, and parents who are somehow connected and have been active in some Jewish cause. But the kids are not as connected to it, though they know some things. This is how I was.

The reality in the USSR was such that everywhere you were made to feel inferior as a Jew. There was one time at university, a group of students were standing around laughing and suddenly one of them says to me, “Wait, you’re a Jew, right?” You were stigmatized, and that’s very hurtful. So the other reason was self-respect. When the goyim ridicule you for being Jewish, you have two options. If you don’t respect yourself, you fold and try to be like them. Or you say, “Yes I am Jewish, and I am not ashamed of it. On the contrary, it’s an honor.” It depends on the personality, and I do not like to be humiliated or be ashamed of who I am; it hurts my self-respect.

There was a process that led to the hijacking attempt. An underground Jewish movement evolved at a time when we felt like we already had one leg in Israel. Our whole thoughts and being were focused around the Jewish state. That was one of the big straws. I cannot say how it would have been before Israel’s establishment, but we knew we had a country, a place where we felt we could be proud Jews. Also, during university, instead of listening to a lecture in thermodynamics, I would learn Hebrew. I wanted to learn about Jews and Judaism and to be among Jews. It was such a joy for me and still is to this day.

Click photo to download. Caption: Yosef Mendelevich at a recent speaking engagement. Credit: JNS.org.

In what ways did Israel impress and/or disappoint you in comparison to what you expected before you moved there?

I strove to come to Israel in order to be an active participant in the revival of the Jewish people in the state of Israel, with the understanding that there are many difficulties and problems, and I have something to do there. Perhaps if had known that Israel is a paradise where there is nothing to do, I would not have had such a longing to go there. But I came there to fight, to change the status quo.

You were in Israel when the huge wave of Russian Jewish immigration came in the early 1990s. How did you feel when so many Russian Jews were finally able to make a home in the Jewish state?

The Soviet immigration to Israel actually began much earlier. The day I made aliyah in 1981, more than 300,000 Jews left the USSR for Israel, which is already an impressive amount. Since 1990-91, every year more people came, but it was part of the same process. There were many people who also came not out of Zionist ideals, but just to escape the USSR. Many of them are returning to Russia today. In the end of the 1980s, the Israeli government asked the United States not to accept Soviet Jews as refugees because these people have a home and a country, which is Israel.

Our whole struggle had been for the right to make aliyah, not for the right to free immigration, but I still saw this move as hurting human freedom. Even though it may have been hurtful that before this agreement some of these immigrants used the permission to leave to go to the US and not Israel, who are we to tell them how to live their lives? This is a free world. I was against this move, as was Natan Sharansky among others. We said that if we bring people to Israel who do not really want to go there, they may end up resenting the country because they were brought there against their will, and this unhealthy for us as well. In the long term, I cannot say what was right.

In terms of the recent Pussy Riot case, the women are not Jewish and the USSR no longer exists, but based on your similar experience has Russia really changed since the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991?

I visited Russia recently after many years, and although I did not learn the current issues in depth I do know one thing. Many times I was told that it is still not allowed to publicize the fight of Jews in the USSR for the right to make aliyah because it is still today considered a subversive act against the authorities.

The Jews that live there today prefer to support Russia. I was proud of the fact that we fought against the Soviet regime, and we even tried to hijack a plane and escape, which shows that there were people who were willing to stand up against that cruel regime. And if today there is still no right to free speech, then it does remind us of the former situation in that country. The fact that they don’t say loud and clear that everything that happened before was a crime and the Soviet leaders committed crimes against humanity, shows that they still cannot offer the Russian people a view that is closer to the American or European mentality. They do not trust their people. I don’t believe this will ever change. It is a big miracle that I am a Jew, and I thank God for the miracle that he made for me.

Posted on October 29, 2012 and filed under Features, U.S., World.