Israel’s overwhelming victory over the Arabs in June 1967, which saved the Jewish state, also changed Soviet Jewry. Not long before that, the “Jews of silence” had begun to speak. They realized that “Jew” could mean more than just a “fifth point” on their passports. Now, with the outcome of the Six Day War, they had a reason to be proud of their heritage.
The following was a joke at the time: One antisemite says to another, “Look how the Jews pounded the Egyptians! I thought that Jews couldn’t even fight.” The other one says, “What are you talking about? They’re not our Jews – they’re ancient Jews.”
However, for us, the Jews in the USSR who were elated after fearing for the fate of the State of Israel, those soldiers of the IDF were our contemporaries.
During that time in Moscow, I had the opportunity to see the June 23 edition of Life magazine. On the cover was a color photo of an Israeli soldier straight from the six-day battle, smiling broadly and holding his rifle aloft, waist-high in the waters of the Suez Canal. The magazine was passed around only among a certain number of Jews, as it was considered Zionist propaganda, forbidden in the USSR.
Seeing that soldier, I felt an unusual closeness with Israel and its people. In fact, I can say that my long and arduous path to Israel began in 1967 with that stunning six-day triumph, even though I applied for an exit visa four years later.
My way to Israel was marked by 17 years of being denied permission to leave the country. Together with other refuseniks, I participated in the Soviet Jewry movement of 1970-80 for Soviet Jewish national rights, repatriation to Israel and access to Jewish culture.
Soviet propaganda, aiming to intimidate Jewish activists, labeled us “soldiers of Zion.” In a country where Zionism was against the law, Hebrew was forbidden, and Jews were refused permission to leave for Israel, that label sounded ominous.
However, we activists, who felt that we were defenders of our people, were proud of the title. I belonged to that group of activists who dedicated their efforts to fighting for the rights of Jews to have access to their culture. A fundamental element of that culture was Hebrew, the national language of the Jews.
For my activities in defending the right of Soviet Jews to learn Hebrew and to know about Jewish culture, I was arrested several times and spent a total of 10 years in jail cells, prison camps and exile in the Gulag.
Jewish activists were often asked, “How did you manage to withstand the pressure of the KGB?” In response, I would cite two factors. The first was that the Jewish activists were not alone in their struggle against the all-powerful KGB. We were supported by Jewish communities around the world, where mass solidarity campaigns were organized.
The second factor was not external but internal. Every Soviet Jewish activist who took part in the struggle entered the Jewish world that had been closed to Jews in the USSR. The profound feeling of belonging to one’s own Jewish world, one’s people, one’s own history and culture strengthened our spirit.
I was arrested in March 1977. I had been giving private Hebrew lessons, which the authorities would not recognize as a legitimate occupation. They regarded Hebrew classes as “nationalistic gatherings” and demanded that they stop.
According to Soviet law, every citizen was obliged to work or be deemed as leading a “parasitic way of life.” To avoid such an accusation, refuseniks (who as a consequence of requesting an exit visa for Israel were fired from their professional jobs) were compelled to take on menial work.
After several years, I stopped doing such work and claimed to the authorities that my Нebrew lessons were my legitimate, socially useful occupation. I was summoned by the police and threatened with arrest as a parasite.
Nevertheless, for almost two years they did not arrest me, evidently out of concern that the arrest of a Hebrew teacher would call attention to the policy toward Jews in the USSR. But in early 1977, there was an escalation of repression against human rights activists, and my turn had come.
They arrested me on Purim. I was sitting with friends around the festive table when the police came to my door and demanded that I go with them. At the police station, I was informed that I was arrested because I had not been engaged in socially useful labor.
My holiday mood was replaced by despair. I knew I had no chance of a fair trial. My despair increased when I realized that I had provoked my arrest by my own illogical actions. After all, I had been warned by friends to take on some menial job and not put myself in a compromising position. I was stricken with the thought of what I would be facing: the trial, the jail cells, images of the Gulag with exhausted inmates, barbed wire. I paced the basement cell from corner to corner like a caged animal.
And then, amid the feeling of utter hopelessness, a melody suddenly floated into my consciousness. It was a Shlomo Carlebach song. I first heard the rabbi’s songs when I became an activist in the early 1970s. After that, I had the rare opportunity to listen to Hebrew songs brought to us from abroad. Composed to words of Hebrew prayers and biblical texts, Carlebach’s songs were very melodious. They brought peace to the soul and inspired one with lofty feelings. Now this beautiful melody resonated within me. It was as if from across the ocean, the singer had extended a hand to me to calm me down. The sweet yet courageous music expelled my fears and fortified my spirit. Along with the melody came the Hebrew words:
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for You are with me. (Psalm 23)
These exalted words filled me with hope. The walls of my prison seemed to expand; the gloomy atmosphere of the dim dungeon became brighter. The fear and despair began to dissipate. Rather than envisioning a dismal future, I thought about the history of the Jewish people, its tragedies and its unique destiny. I was with my people, and I knew they would never abandon me.
As I mentioned before, a factor that strengthened our spirit was the assurance that we were not alone. In response to the struggle of the small group of Russian Jewish activists withstanding KGB persecution, the massive international movement arose to free Soviet Jews. In that effort, we Jewish activists needed strong solidarity and mutual help.
An example of that solidarity took place during Natan Sharansky’s trial in 1978. Sharansky had also been arrested in March 1977. A great deal has been written about his trial, where he was charged with a very serious crime against the state, which garnered a severe punishment. Here is an excerpt from Sharansky’s 1988 book Fear No Evil: “They took me to a special holding cell. I knew that nothing was actually being decided now, and that all the important decisions had already been made. To distract myself, I read the various inscriptions and curses scratched and written across the walls of the cell.
“Suddenly my eyes fell upon a Magen David, with an inscription below it in Hebrew: ‘Asir Zion Yosef Begun. Hazak ve’ematz!’ (Prisoner of Zion Yosef Begun. Be strong and courageous!)"
Begun, a Hebrew teacher and veteran of our movement, had been arrested not long before me on a charge of parasitism, a common charge against refuseniks dismissed from their jobs. Begun must have been tried in this building and waited in this very cell, where he had left a message to support whoever would be here. Thank you, Yosef.
“I returned to my seat in the courtroom....”
Inspired by the courageous fight of Jews behind the Iron Curtain, Jews in many countries banded together to help us, under the biblical appeal “Let my people go.” This movement was so powerful that it could influence government policy on behalf of Soviet Jews. I have personal evidence of this.
Soon after making aliya in 1988, I was invited to the White House to meet with Ronald Reagan. The US president gave me a special gift – a metal bracelet inscribed with my name, a Magen David and the Hebrew words “Asir Zion” [prisoner of Zion]. Thousands of Americans had such bracelets with the names of imprisoned Jewish activists. Reagan was known to be a great supporter of Soviet Jews. When he handed me the bracelet, he said, “It has been on my desk to remind me of the suffering of the Jews in the USSR.”
But before that honorable encounter, my long-awaited dream was fulfilled when I stepped onto the holy ground of Jerusalem. For the first year, I had the privilege of living in the capital’s Yemin Moshe. The upscale neighborhood consisted mainly of olim from Western countries who observed a traditional religious way of life.
For me, a newcomer from an atheistic country, I found it interesting that so many educators, lawyers, scientists, businessmen and military officers attended the local synagogue to observe the ancient religious traditions.
Many of them, in their native countries, had taken part in the struggle for Soviet Jewry, and I saw their great respect for the Jewish activists in Russia. I used to tell them that for me, they were the real “Jewish heroes” (as they called us) because they had left their countries for Israel, in spite of the peaceful and prosperous life they’d had there.
Many of the congregation members of the Yemin Moshe synagogue were veterans of the Israel-Arab wars. For me, it stirred strong feelings: I was standing among the true soldiers of Zion. No matter who they had been on the battlefield – soldiers or generals – they defended the land of Zion. Jewish activists in Soviet Russia, who fought to defend the rights of Jews, had also been (even in terms of anti-Zionist propaganda) soldiers of Zion!
A very memorable event occurred that year in Yemin Moshe, when I met the Israeli soldier from the cover of Life magazine of June 1967. At our meeting almost 22 years later, the anonymous soldier in the cover photo now had a name and a high rank – IDF Gen. Yossi Ben-Hanan. At that meeting of two soldiers of Zion, I experienced once again those heady six days of June 1967 that “shook the world” and also influenced the course of my own destiny.
In a wider context, the meeting symbolized for me the connection of two frontiers of battle with two enemies that were bent on the destruction of the Jewish people: the Arab armies in the Middle East and the Soviet regime in the USSR. Both enemies had been defeated. The Jewish state, the guarantee of Jewish national existence, is successfully developing. And the mass aliya of Soviet Jews, as well as the Jewish renaissance in post-Soviet countries, is another important result of that victory.
My meeting with the Israeli general, a hero of the Six Day War, took place, appropriately enough, on Simhat Torah. The synagogue in Yemin Moshe was filled with people singing prayers and dancing with the Torah scrolls. It was an exciting expression of the Jewish people’s eternal love for the Torah.
Jewish sages thousands of years ago said that the most important principle of Jewish existence is “No Torah – no bread.” That is, without a spiritual foundation, people could not exist. And the opposite is true as well: “No bread – no Torah.” Without a strong Jewish state comes spiritual degradation, eventually followed by degradation of the people. All Jewish achievements and victories, as well as tragedies and losses, attest to that.