PRINCETON, New Jersey – They made their connection at the same age on opposite ends of the same struggle – a Russian refusenik fighting to emigrate to Israel and a young, idealistic human rights lawyer fervently picking up the flag of freedom in a tireless campaign to liberate Soviet Jewry.
Thirty years later, the 73-year-old former refusenik - Yuli Kosharovsky – and the 73-year-old lawyer – Irwin Cotler – reunited under the auspices of Limmud FSU near the campus of Princeton University to talk about their experiences in front of 750 young Americans of Russian descent. Most of them weren’t even born during the struggle for Soviet Jewry and many of them never received any details of the painful episode from their Soviet émigré parents who chose the US over Israel as their destination of refuge.
The former minister of justice and attorney-general in Canada, Cotler has been a member of the Canadian Parliament since 1999. But he’s best known for being at the forefront of the struggle for justice and human rights around the world. Serving as counsel to prisoners of conscience from Andrei Sakharov and Natan Sharansky in the former Soviet Union to Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Jacobo Timimerman in Argentina and blogger Maikel Nabil in Egypt, Cotler has continued the battle he cut his teeth on with Kosharovsky and his fellow prisoners of Zion.
Kosharovsky, once known as the Soviet Union’s most prominent refusenik – even more well known than Sharansky – applied to emigrate to Israel in 1971 after a successful career in nuclear engineering that according to Russian authorities made him privy to “state secrets.”
His application was denied, and for the next 17 years, he and his wife Inna and their three children were prisoners in their own country – becoming the focus of rallies and campaigns to allow them to leave for Israel
In 1975, Kosharovsky began a seminar for unemployed engineers, was threatened by the KGB and told to discontinue the seminars. He refused. Soviet authorities ransacked their apartment on more than one occasion, confiscating learning materials, and Kosharovsky was placed under house arrest numerous times. Finally, in 1988, his request was granted and the family moved to Israel, where Kosharovsky resumed his career. He has also written a four-volume book chronicling the history of Soviet Jewry – called We Are Jews again.
Following are excerpts from the talks Cotler and Kosharovsky gave at the Limmud FSU Princeton conference which took place earlier this spring.
COTLER: My passion for human rights was there as a child. Out of all the highlights in my resume, the most important thing is missing – I’m the son of Nat and Faye Cotler, zichronma l’vracha, my beloved parents.
My father taught me, but I was too young to understand the message until later, so he would repeat it – about the importance of ‘the pursuit of justice.’ You may not understand it now, he said, but one day you’ll see that this is equal to all the other commandments combined.
And it was my mother, who would hear my father say these things, who would tell me: If you want to pursue justice, you have to feel the injustice around you. Otherwise, it’s just a theoretical concept. I suspect that it was my parents teaching that got me involved, whether it be for the struggle for Soviet Jewry or against apartheid.
KOSHAROVSKY: Growing up in an anti-Semitic country, you eventually learn that you have some limitations as a Jew. Especially after the Six-Day War, Russian became hysterical – anti-Israel and anti-Zionist.
I was building nuclear missiles for the government – very good pay and I was quite respected. At the same time, I couldn’t say a word about what was really troubling me, the government’s approach to Israel. My god, these people went through the Holocaust and now the Russian are supporting those who want to annihilate the place where these people came to for refuge. And I’m selling my brain to them!
I couldn’t stand it and I think many others couldn’t stand it either. You can’t live divided inside, no matter how high a position you have.
COTLER: I’m also from the former Soviet Union – my grandparents emigrated from there much earlier. But when I first visited Moscow in 1969, in some ways psychologically, I felt like I was coming home – nothing there was foreign to me, the smells of the cooking, the food.
My grandfather spoke to me in Yiddish and he said he would teach me four words in Russian that I should never forget that were borne of his experience. And they were "Bey zhidov, spasay Rossiyu!" - Beat the Jews and save Russia.
As we’re sitting here now, it’s the 50th anniversary almost to the day of my first involvement in the great cause of my life – the struggle of Soviet Jewry. In 1963, I was a law student at McGill in Montreal, and there was one of the first mass assemblies on behalf of Soviet Jewry.
It took place against the wishes of the Jewish leadership – where there was that ‘we shouldn’t rock the boat’ philosophy. But we decided we couldn’t be silent.
A couple years later, Elie Wiesel published his book The Jews of Silence. People thought he was referring to the Jews of the FSU, but he was referring to Jews in the Diaspora who were being silent in the face of what was happening.
KOSHAROVSKY: Daily life as a refusenik was really difficult. I had been warned not to apply, and they built an especially awkward process of doing this beginning in 1968. Before that, it was impossible to apply.
You were brought before an assembly and accused of treason. I was fired from my job automatically because I asked for a reference. Colleagues who were friends of mine had to stand at a podium and say how awful I was, and how my ideology had been twisted and damaged by Zionist propaganda.
Seven days after I applied to emigrate, I was arrested and put in a punishment cell for 15 days, and then another 15 days. They began developing a case against me that would include seven years in prison and another five years in exile. I began to think that maybe I would never be able to leave the stone cell I was in.
In a country like the Soviet Union, a citizen is completely dependent on the state. That’s how they control their citizens. In our case they tried to frighten us. They wanted to frighten other Jews who might think about applying to leave. When I applied, I understood that I would either die or break through.
COTLER: I traveled to the Soviet Union as part of the cause in 1979. Through the good offices of the Canadian government, it was arranged for me to appear in a Soviet court to argue the case on behalf of Natan Sharansky.
The day before, I was invited by Sharansky’s parents to visit – they were celebrating their 40th anniversary with appropriately enough, a hunger strike. Not wanting to cause any problems in terms of my trip, I asked the Soviet authorities and received permission to attend. So I left on a sunny August day in the car of Alexander Lerner, a brilliant scientist and then a refusenik of 12 years. Like the others, he lost his job as soon as he applied for aliya.
I soon became witness to the kind of moral courage the refuseniks had that, for me, was proof that their struggle would ultimately prevail. Some 15 minutes into our drive, we were stopped and taken to a military compound. The only person they wanted to interrogate was me, they told everyone else they could go on to the Sharansky family and I’d be able to follow them. Alexander was apprehensive and insisted on staying with me. They gave me a protocol in Russian to sign, and I knew enough from my experience that it was signing a confession of my own criminality, so I refused. I was taken back to the hotel, and as we approached it, Alexander said, “Look, there are two KGB people outside.”
“What will happen?” I asked.
“Maybe they’re just going to intimidate you,” he said and smiled. “Or they’re going to expel you. But tell them if they do, then I and my family want to go too.”
Then he grabbed my hand and I’ll never forget this exchange.
“You know, maybe this isn’t all bad. You’re witnessing in several hours what as way of life for us in the Soviet Union. No matter what happens now, don’t let them intimidate you.”
And he ended in Hebrew, “Wherever we are, we are the guarantors of each other’s destiny.” (Cotler was subsequently deported).
KOSHAROVSKY: The KGB considered us big trouble-makers, and not only because of our activities, but because of the increasing involvement of Western Jewry and Israel.
I was sitting in jail for months one time, and when I was released, a KGB agent asked me, “how could it be that when you were in jail, Israel Radio was broadcasting about your arrest?”
I answered, ‘you’re asking me? I was sitting in your jail!”
The information network was working very quickly and efficiently and they were afraid of it. Other minorities didn’t have such support or solidarity or power. This was a discovery for me – the power of Jewish identity when you’re in trouble and people in another part of the world take it on as their own pain and their own personal responsibility to you. And this helped us survive under very difficult circumstances.
I was fired from many manual jobs, and when you are fired, you can’t live without work or you’ll be accused of being a parasite. They gave you two weeks to find a job or go to jail. It wasn’t an easy life, but looking back, they were the brightest years of my life, full of meaning and purpose. We were living at the limit of human capacity.
COTLER: The cause for Soviet Jewry was actually four or five revolutions packed into one. First, the struggle for Soviet Jewry began with the Soviet Jews themselves and their enormous courage.
Next, you had the mobilization of Jews in the Diaspora. I’ve never seen in all my year a mobilization of Jews around a just cause like the Soviet Jewry one. The third thing was the involvement of the larger human rights movement. The Soviet Jewry movement became intertwined with events like the Helsinki movement.
The fourth was the transformative impact of the Six Day War on Soviet Jews and one million Soviet Jews eventually making their way to Israel. And finally, there’s the impact of Soviet Jewry on world history, on East-West relations, on the future of the state of Israel, and on the situation of Jews in the Diaspora.
It had a fantastic impact, and I have personal proof. When I asked my daughter Gila what brought about her decision to make aliya, she told me “Soviet Jewry. When I was a child, you used to drag me to the demonstrations and I didn’t really want to go. But going there and being there and listening to the words ‘Let my people go’, at the end of the day, I felt that Israel was the place for me.”
KOSHAROVSKY: Israel was a beneficial part of the whole movement. Most of the people who left came to Israel, the technological elite of Soviet Jewry. Every immigration is a painful process, but gradually you begin to innovate and develop. Israel is a mix of different waves of immigration.
Soviet Jews were very stubborn; we stayed Jews because we were stubborn. We wanted to be Jews and we felt that part of our identity was being Jewish genetically – we were Jewish by our right of birth.
It never entered into my head to go somewhere else like America. For me, it was a great honor to take part in this historic process of the restoration of Jewish independence. If you don’t have a place to go, then you are a pawn in the hands of other people.
So for me, being in Israel is a great honor, it made me feel like I’m living a meaningful life. That’s what I fought for, and I wouldn’t fight for another country. Israel is the only place on earth that I feel I’m living in my own country, in my own home.