Operation Wedding: Assisting a modern Deborah - opinion

The struggle for aliyah – one of the most important mitzvot, the ingathering of the exiles – led to meeting my wife and realizing the first mitzvah in the Torah.

 THE WRITER and Avital Sharansky pose during a visit to the White House in 1981, when they had an opportunity to meet with former president Ronald Reagan (photo credit: WHITE HOUSE)
THE WRITER and Avital Sharansky pose during a visit to the White House in 1981, when they had an opportunity to meet with former president Ronald Reagan
(photo credit: WHITE HOUSE)

Now 40 years ago, immediately after my release from prison in Russia, I wrote a book called Operation Wedding about the plan to hijack a Soviet plane and fly with it to Israel. Since then it became a bestseller. There are people who have read the book 15 times or more. People ask: “Was Operation Wedding the peak of your life? Did you do anything after that?”

Yes, indeed, I did a great deal.

I recently met President Isaac Herzog, and he suggested that I write about what happened to me subsequently. And so I undertook the challenge to write about the life of a Prisoner of Zion in Zion, not only a continuation of what we did in the underground in Russia, but a true aliyah, spiritual elevation.

The Russian and Hebrew editions of my original book were in fact called Operation Wedding but the best-selling English edition, published by Gefen Books, bore a different title – Unbroken Spirit.

And now the sequel to Unbroken Spirit, in which I relate all that has happened to me since my release from the Soviet prison in 1981 and immediately making aliyah, will soon be published with the provisional title A Man In Search of Faith.

 SOVIET OLIM celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 1990 great wave of aliyah, at the Jerusalem Convention Center, 2015. (credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90) SOVIET OLIM celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 1990 great wave of aliyah, at the Jerusalem Convention Center, 2015. (credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

In it, I tell how I met and married my dear wife, married the Land of Israel and the people of Israel, served in the IDF, studied Torah, studied in university, took part in public activism and met famous people who are the kind one reads about in newspapers.

There is a saying of the sages, Hazal. “One mitzvah brings another in its wake.” The struggle for aliyah – one of the most important mitzvot, the ingathering of the exiles – led to meeting my wife and realizing the first mitzvah in the Torah.

But my contact with Avital Sharansky was something beyond simple work relations.

As a rule, Avital would go abroad – since this was the main theater of the struggle – accompanied by one or two friends from her headquarters – Rabbi Eli Sadan, Rabbi Avi Maoz, or another lady friend. In the winter of 1985, Avital contacted me and asked me to accompany her on a trip to Europe. Nobody in the usual retinue was available for the trip. My wife, who was expecting a third child at the time agreed. I was studying for my rabbinical ordination at the Midrasha Hagevoha L’Torah (“Advanced Torah Institute”) headed by Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen, then-chief rabbi of Haifa, and he also agreed that I should go on such an important mission.

Avital explained the goal of the trip to me. In Holland, a conference of European foreign ministers was due to take place and she was trying to get them to raise the issue of the release of Anatoly Sharansky at the conference (in conjunction with the issue of Prisoners of Zion in general). It was necessary to meet with the British foreign minister. We contacted then-foreign minister Yitzhak Shamir, who was in rotation with Shimon Peres. Shamir was waiting for us in the Knesset. In those days, the name Avital Sharansky opened doors with ease.

“We are asking you to help us arrange a meeting next week with the British foreign minister.”

Shamir smiled: “Even I, who wish to meet with the foreign minister, must arrange it at least a month beforehand, and you are asking to do this from one day to the next?”

WE DID not leave disappointed. We knew that the government machinery was slow-moving when initiative and immediate action were required in our struggle.

I contacted Rita Acker, the head of the “35’s” women’s organization in England who worked on behalf of Soviet Jewry. Rita responded at once. I said that Avital required a meeting with the British Foreign Minister.

“Give me half an hour to check.”

And indeed, within half an hour the meeting was arranged.

The system was very simple. The women’s organization had members who were employed in all the national institutions. One of the members of the 35’s worked in the Foreign Office. She went across the corridor to the Foreign Minister’s secretary and the meeting was arranged in a moment.

An additional problem we had to overcome was that the meeting with the foreign minister was arranged for the eve of the Shabbat. Both Avital and myself were Shabbat observant and were unable to use the public transport to get to the Foreign Ministry on the Sabbath.

Members of the 35’s were waiting for us at the airfield and took us to the King’s Horse Guard Hotel which was located within walking distance from the British Foreign Minister’s office.

We have to remember that the women of the 35’s belonged to the upper echelons of British society, were very capable and well-connected. As we sat in the lobby of the hotel, we saw a troop of young people wearing knitted skullcaps carrying dishes of food and even a Shabbat hot-plate. They explained that members of the Bnei Akiva Movement in Britain brought us the Shabbat meal. I placed the hot-plate behind the TV set so that it would not be too prominent.

We greeted the Shabbat on our own in the hotel since the meeting with the British Foreign Minister had been arranged for close to the start of Shabbat. The meal itself we delayed until after the meeting.

And so we crossed the road between us and the palatial Foreign Ministry. Once again, I was amazed at the efficiency of the women’s organization that within such a short time had booked hotel rooms for us at a convenient location and also taken care of our Shabbat meal. It was all certainly done at their expense.

The meeting with the British foreign minister was not productive. When in the past Avital had met with Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister, Avital said to her “I ask you to help me.” And the British prime minister answered her: “I am already helping you.”

“How so?”

“By meeting with you.”

There was an element of truth in her words. The Russians were certainly keeping track of Avital’s movements. Reports that Avital was meeting with the greats of the world impressed the Soviets.

Interestingly, before we went into the British foreign minister via a very impressive wooden door, Avital stopped and said in a frightened tone of voice “Oy, I don’t know what to say.” Precisely for that reason I was there to escort her and to support her in a moment of weakness, and I said: “Speak about the situation of Anatoly and the other Prisoners of Zion.” All the rest of the meeting was extremely routine.

I recalled that my sister, Rivka Drori, who traveled around the world a lot actively seeking my prison release, told me that once, before a meeting with then-head of the Soviet Union Leonid Brezhnev, she had managed to meet former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Kissinger promised to raise the issue of the Prisoners of Zion and of the Russian Jews in general.

ONE OF Kissinger’s aides told her afterwards how the promise actually was kept. Kissinger mentioned in the meeting with Brezhnev that he wished to raise the subject of Soviet Jews. Brezhnev answered him, “Well, and so you have.” And the conversation continued about other issues. If Kissinger was really interested in the subject he would have banged on the table and insisted.

We returned from the meeting in the Foreign Ministry intending to enjoy the Shabbat meal that the Bnei Akiva group had brought us. However, it turned out that the chambermaid had turned off the Shabbat hot-plate. Apparently, it was against the safety regulations, and so we remained with cold food. Not terrible. We had not come to enjoy ourselves in London.

The next day was still Shabbat. They told us that there was a synagogue in the vicinity. Somehow we found it. It turned out that it was the Machzike Hadath Synagogue where Rabbi Kook had been the rabbi in World War I.

Before the war, Rav Kook had to go to Europe to attend a conference for the establishment of Agudat Israel but he had to remain there till the end of the war. His friends had arranged for him to obtain a position in London for his livelihood in London, which was full of Jews from the Russian Empire who fled from the pogroms. A significant number went and settled in America, but a considerable part remained in England, including the family of my grandfather, Yosef Leib Mendelevich from the city of Dvinsk.

I assume that in the days of Rav Kook, at the turn of the century, Jews had filled the interior of the synagogue. But, while we were in London, there was not even a minyan, a quorum of 10. The time for the Shacharit morning prayers had nearly passed when three more people of African origin with strange turban-like head-coverings came in. Nobody questioned their Jewishness. The prayer leader and Torah reader was an Israeli Jew of Moroccan extraction. For the honor of Maftir concluding the Torah portion including the Haftara reading, he called on me. I was to read a section of the Song of Deborah in the Book of Judges, about Deborah the Prophetess.

This was very much in sync with the subject of our mission. The Song of Deborah told about a courageous leader of the people of Israel who defeated the Philistines. I told the Israeli Reader who had given me such an honor: “Listen, I don’t know how to read the taamim (cantillation notes). He answered: “Don’t worry. Nobody understands anyway.”

I still found it difficult to read the Haftara; I was a novice in the world of Torah. While I read I thought to myself – “Deborah the Heroine of our day is here with us in the prayer hall – Avital Sharansky. Her self-sacrifice in the struggle she was leading was a living spirit in the sails of the struggle for the freedom of aliyah of the Soviet Jews. Although the main accent was on the release of her husband, it was clear to everyone that her activity represented something greater than the release of one person from prison.

The article was translated by David Herman, who has translated several articles by Yosef Mendelevich as well as the text of Mendelevich’s recent documentary film about Operation Wedding called USSR: The Jews of Silence Hijack a Plane, and also Mendelevich’s memoir A Hero of Jewish Freedom (published by Vallentine-Mitchell).