'Russian Jews were free to emigrate as they wished'

Ex-aliya representative Arnon Mantver denies claims made by retired Israeli official that Israel misled Soviet Jews into making aliya in 80s, 90s.

Yaakov kedmi 311 (photo credit: GPO)
Yaakov kedmi 311
(photo credit: GPO)
Israel did not dupe Soviet Jewry into immigrating to Israel during the late 1980s and 1990s, an official involved in organizing the great immigration of Soviet Jewry to Israel has insisted.
Arnon Mantver, who was the head of the Jewish Agency’s aliya department in the 1990s, denied claims made by retired Israeli official Yaakov Kedmi that Israel misled Soviet Jews by making them believe they had no other choice if they wanted to leave the country.
“To say that the Soviet Jews didn’t know that they could go elsewhere: were there no phones or letters? Was the world completely shut off?” Mantver told The Jerusalem Post. “I agree that we took a tough Zionist stance, but to say we reached an understanding to dupe with visas, that’s too much.”
Jewish Agency spokesman Haviv Rettig Gur also expressed skepticism concerning Kedmi’s claim, pointing towards the hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews who chose to immigrate to the US and Germany.
“The notion that people can be duped into moving to Israel is surprising to say the least,” he said. “In the Soviet period, activists spoke about 400,000 Jews would make aliya when the iron curtain fell. They were surprised when many more did. Half the Jews who left the Soviet Union went to either Germany or the United States, or in small numbers elsewhere in the Jewish world. Why would they know less than the others about geography?”
On Wednesday, Kedmi was quoted in a front-page story in Yediot Aharonot as saying he was part of a deliberate Israeli operation which led Jews seeking to emigrate from the oppressive communist state to believe that Israel was their only option.
“It was the right moment to take the people and turn them in our direction,” Kedmi said. “If we’d have missed the moment very few would have come to Israel.”
The timing of the interview coincides with the publication of Kedmi’s new book about his time at Nativ, a liaison group which helped organize the great immigration of Russian Jewry to Israel which peaked in the 1990s. In the interview he describes a method by which Jerusalem prodded Soviet Jews into making aliya through the use of transit points in communist countries, with the knowledge of local authorities.
“[Soviet Jews] could not leave or enter any other country without showing a ticket to Hungary or Romania,” Kedmi said. “We made sure that the arrangements at the transit points would not allow them to arrive anywhere else but Israel.”
He added: “In Romania we reached an agreement with dear [Romanian dictator Nicolae] Ceausescu, may he rest in peace, that Jews who reached him would go in only one route, to Israel, and in most instances they didn’t even leave the airport,” he said. “The herd-mentality obedience of the immigrants, the psychological pressure and Soviet education all played into our hands.”
According to Kedmi, the deal with the Romanian tyrant who was overthrown and executed in 1989 was reached with help from Washington.
“[Nativ] signed a deal with the Romanian intelligence that the Romanians will receive a 100 million dollar loan and in return they will make sure Jews will leave Bucharest in one direction – Ben Gurion Airport,” he said.
Mantver, the director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Israel, said Kedmi’s description was partially correct but inaccurate.
“That transit points were set up in communist countries, and that we promised to take Soviet Jews to Israel is true – but what he’s wrong about is that the US had a quota of taking in 38,000 Jewish refugees a year,” he said.
“Many Jews didn’t want to wait several years for them. Meantime, reports were coming from Israel that it wasn’t so bad here, that the weather and conditions were good.
“The Jewish leadership in America also realized Israel was a good option for Soviet Jews and they didn’t lobby to increase the refugee quota. In any case, it’s impossible to control one million people. To say that there was a scam is inaccurate, to say the least.”
Kedmi told Yediot that some Foreign Ministry officials at the time raised concerns about the ethics of denying information from Soviet Jews who may have preferred to immigrate to the US or Germany had they known it were possible.

However, the former Nativ official said he had few regrets, and that the eventual outcome of the policy – the arrival of over one million Jews to Israel in the decade between 1990 and 2000 – saved the country.
“I was content with what I did then, and I am content with what I did for this country now,” he said. “But as for the people’s fate, today I’m more doubtful. Did I not pass the threshold by which people can affect the fate of hundreds of thousands of people? I have no unequivocal answer to that.”