On a visit to Moscow in 1980, with the shades of Yuli Kosharovsky’s apartment drawn to permit the photographing of various documents, we concluded our session by posing for a friendly family photo. Instinctively, I put my arm on Kosharovsky’s shoulder for the picture. There was a loud yelp as he wriggled out of my rather light grasp. That, I was told, was the arm his KGB torturers had twisted and where they had left their mark on him.
At the beginning of Passover this year, the former Soviet Jewish refusenik Kosharovsky, now aged 72, died after a fall from a palm tree he had climbed at his home in Beit Aryeh, a settlement of some 4,000 people located in Samaria, not far from Rosh Ha’ayin.
When he was granted permission to make aliya in 1989, Kosharovsky was the “longest refusenik.” He had applied 18 years earlier, at a time the Soviets rarely granted such permission, and his situation was worse – while ordinary Soviet citizens were denied visas because they were allegedly in possession of state secrets, Kosharovsky was actually an engineer who worked on missile delivery systems. In 1967 he had awakened to his Jewish roots, chose to tie his future to Israel, and faced the results.
He organized Hebrew classes and then seminars for Hebrew teachers across the Soviet Union, helping establish “ulpanim” throughout the totalitarian country run by its all-seeing dictatorship. He was occasionally arrested, sometimes tortured, subject to searches of his home, but nothing deterred him. Tourists knew his address and helped supply the Soviet Jewish freedom movement with equipment, which he was in charge of distributing. At our first meeting I left the heavy equipment; in our last meeting my traveling companion and I stripped almost bare, leaving him with anything we did not need for our flight, to be sold for the benefit of forcibly unemployed refuseniks.
Impressed by his total dedication to his Jewish heritage and Hebrew culture, to the point that his bathtub was being used to prepare some of the necessities for the upcoming Passover holiday, I at one point ventured to ask why he stopped at the gate of religion, remaining secular. He answered that when he saw American rabbis praying three times a day for the return to Jerusalem, while they could go but did not, he wanted no part of that religion. I feebly noted that religion is an existential, individual commitment and should not be influenced by the deeds or misdeeds of other adherents, and he agreed, but apparently the bad taste left in his mouth by the prayers of the Diaspora’s Orthodox turned him off.
A few years after Kosharovsky’s aliya, I met him again. In 1992 he ran for the Knesset as head of the DA party he had founded. DA stood for Democracy and Aliya. It garnered only about a third of the votes necessary for a Knesset seat, a mere five percent of the number of Russian immigrants at the time. I introduced Kosharovsky to some economists at the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies who recommended building a Free Export Processing Zone in Israel. Kosharovsky loved the idea: a fenced-off area where Israel’s stifling government bureaucracy, regulatory regime and Histadrut-backed monopolies forbidding competition would be out of bounds.
American Jewish investors and some foreign-based companies that had never invested in Israel pledged to create upwards of 20,000 jobs if such a free zone were established in the Negev.
Kosharovsky saw what they saw – the potential to break free from the fettered statist economy and find gainful, private-sector employment for thousands of new, highly educated immigrants. He also saw that it was a test case for freedom. If the zone succeeded, other Israelis would clamor for the same economic freedoms, and the whole country might opt for a market-based economy; if it failed, taxpayers would not bear any of the costs, as they usually do when government initiatives falter.
In May 1993 Kosharovsky helped bring 15,000 Soviet immigrants to a rally opposite the Knesset, calling for economic reform and among other things advocating for a free zone.
Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin eventually embraced the idea, his finance minister Avraham Shohat somewhat reluctantly went along, and the Knesset passed a free zone law. But Israeli politicians and bureaucrats proved stronger than their colleagues in the collapsed Soviet Union. They rewrote the law passed by the Knesset and ensured bureaucratic control and regulation of the zone. The investors fled.
Kosharovsky devoted much of his time over the past decade to writing a comprehensive history of the Soviet Jewish freedom movement. The result is available free at kosharovsky.com.
One might say that Kosharovsky picked seemingly lost or unbelievable causes – the right of a Soviet missile systems technician to make aliya, the establishment of a network of Hebrew classes throughout the Soviet Union, freedom for Soviet Jews, and the fight for economic freedom in Israel.
The first three battles he won or helped win, but it has been 20 years since he led thousands of Soviet Jewish immigrants in rallies calling for economic freedom in Israel and the goal has not yet been reached. Still, it took 18 years for him to make aliya and decades for Soviet Jews to win their freedom. If the “longest refusenik” was fortunate enough to die pruning a palm tree in Samaria, anything is possible.
The author is a Senior Research Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies (JIMS).