How Georgia’s Jews helped to open the Gates

We will wait for months and years. We will wait all our lives if necessary, but we will not renounce our faith or our hopes. We believe: our prayers have reached God. We know: our appeals will reach people. For we are asking: let us go to the land of our forefathers.

WHEN GOLDA MEIR sat down after reading the collective letter of the heads of eighteen Soviet Georgian families to the assembled Knesset members, there was literally not a dry eye in the House. The majestic use of biblical phraseology; the eloquent reminder of the tragic past — the Inquisition, Dreyfus, Beilis, the camps — coerced all who read or heard it to take notice.

The imagery of the letter symbolised Soviet Jews as the representatives of those who had survived the long march through the centuries of persecution. “The prophecy has come true, Israel has risen from the ashes: we have not forgotten Jerusalem, and it needs our hands.”

The effect of the letter was electrifying throughout Israel and the diaspora. Its eighteen signatories were designated as leaders of the Jewish movement. Without a doubt, its publication was a vital benchmark in the development of the Jewish national movement in the USSR.

For the first time, the Government of Israel publicly acknowledged the existence of an emigration movement and pledged its support. In this country, it catalysed an understanding of the situation and history of Soviet Jewry which has led to the involvement of thousands of people during the past decade.

And yet, it was not that simple. The background to the letter of the eighteen in Georgia and its eventual release by Golda Meir in Israel was far more complex, and indeed controversial, than is generally realised.

After the Six-Day War, a number of brave individuals sent the first open letters to Soviet leaders requesting exit visas. Their approach was usually humanitarian, and the basis for emigration was one of family reunification.

In August, 1968, the Kremlin began once again to permit Jews to leave for Israel after a hiatus of over a year, due to Soviet anger at the outcome of the Six-Day War. In November, 1968. well-known refuseniks from Riga were issued with emigration permits. The movement In August, 1968, the Kremlin began once again to permit Jews to leave for Israel after a hiatus of over a year, due to Soviet anger at the outcome of the Six-Day War. In November, 1968, well-known refuseniks from Riga were issued with migration permits. The movement leaders understood that an increase in activity would not only involve more Jews, but would also force the Kremlin to issue exit visas to the “troublemakers,” as had been the case in Riga.

At the beginning of 1969, two Moscow activists, Vitaly Svechinsky and Tina Brodetskaya, put forward the concept of a collective letter to world Jewry. A rough draft was prepared and a number of refuseniks offered to sign. Yet the leadership of the Moscow movement reacted cautiously at such a major step.

To sign an appeal to foreign Jews was dangerous .enough, but to do it collectively was to provide written .proof that the Jews were organised and working together. Such an approach could • then be interpreted as a “Zionist conspiracy,” and even as an “anti-Soviet organisation.”



By the summer of 1969, such reservations had evaporated and the Moscow leadership called a meeting of activists from other cities. Congregating in a forest outside Moscow in mid-August, the direction of the movement was debated, as was the provision of educational material; but most important was the timing of the release of the first collective letter. It was agreed that Svechinsky would release the letter of the Moscow ten to Western journalists in September.

The Georgian representative at the meeting was Gershon Tsitsuashvili, who had been involved in clandestine Jewish activities since the early ‘sixties. Tsitsuashvili had studied oriental languages, including Hebrew, at the University of Tbilisi. As in Riga, Jews in Georgia were acutely conscious of their Jewish heritage, and even more so following the Six-Day War.

And yet, the first official collective approach of Soviet Jews to their brothers in the West did not come from the mainstream movement. Unknown to Tsitsuashvili, a group of Georgian Jews had reached a similar conclusion about the need for a collective letter.

In February 1969, Albert Mikhailashvili went to Moscow with the names of eighty-eight families who wished to leave. In Moscow, as in Georgia, each public body proved as intransigent as the one before. In June, Mikhailashvili, Shabata Elashvili, Khaim Mikhelashvili and Khaim Tetruashvili each wrote to Golda Meir in Israel. None received a reply.

The next step was logically to write a collective letter. In July, Mikhailashvili, Elashvili and Ben-Zion Yakobishvili organised the drafting of the letter and the collection of the signatures of eighteen heads of families, representing over a hundred people in all. The letter was dated August 6, 1969, and was addressed to Golda Meir, with instructions for the letter to be passed on to Israel’s representative at the UN, Yosef Tekoah.

Shabata Elashvili and Ben-Zion Yakobishvili requested that “the letter be published in the press and broadcast in the Russian language over the Voice of Israel. We will listen to broadcasts on the 2nd, 9th, 16th and 23rd of Elul and on the first day of Tishri.”

To Tekoah, they wrote: “We request you to take steps to distribute the enclosed letter to the members of the United Nations and also to have it published in the press with the complete list of signatories, names and surnames and, if necessary, addresses.”

On August 8, Shabata Elashvili went to Moscow and handed the letter to the Dutch Embassy, which looked after Israel’s diplomatic interests in the USSR. The eighteen then waited. Rash Hashana approached in anticipation and departed in depression. And when, after two months, there was still silence, they began to believe that their appeal was not important enough for Israel to sit up and take note.

Then, in November, the letter was broadcast over the Voice of Israel in Russian. The eighteen could not believe it. The impact on Georgian Jews was devastating and many came, knocking on the doors of the signatories, to ask them how they, too, could emigrate to Israel.

All this went on oblivious of the fact that the Mainstream movement was meeting in Moscow to discuss the possibility of collective appeals.

The letter of the eighteen posed a problem for the Israeli Government. It had pursued a policy of quiet diplomacy in attempting to help Soviet Jews since the establishment of the State. Israeli tourists and diplomats, such as Liova Eliav, who visited the USSR would often come across Soviet Jews during the course of their travels. Contact with a Jewish world closed to them through the most innocuous of articles, such as a Jerusalem postcard, evoked a new awareness.

However, the trauma of the Black Years, when Stalin imprisoned or murdered the cream of Jewish leadership, made successive governments of Israel excessively cautious and bureaucratic in their dealings with the Kremlin. Moreover, they had to take into consideration the interests of the State vis-a-vis Moscow.

When the first activists arrived from Riga in 1969, they began to shout and protest about their relatives and friends left behind in the Soviet Union. If they were “troublemakers” in the USSR, why should they cease their outrageous, if not courageous, activities in Israel?

A clash between the activists and the Government was inevitable. Indeed, while Golda Meir was reading the letter of the eighteen in the Knesset, a few hundred yards away students were demonstrating against former government policy. Neither image in this conflict was a simple or accurate one.

After the rupture of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, the Israeli Government had little to lose in openly backing a Jewish repatriation movement which had simultaneously come into the open. Moreover, the first activists to be allowed out were passionately anti-Communist and therefore, not unexpectedly, worshippers at the altar of Jabotinsky.

They saw events and institutions in polarised terms. The fact that members of the Israeli Cabinet called themselves socialists, or that the Histadrut celebrated May Day, was incomprehensible and pure anathema to them. It was not surprising that, after a comparatively short time, the Opposition parties began to speak out defiantly in support of Soviet Jews, A black image of the Government, coupled with it shining white one of the Opposition, served their political interests well.

All these considerations prompted the Government of Israel to change its position on Soviet Jews after decades of unseen work. More and more Soviet Jews were coming out and visiting Jewish communities in the Diaspora. There they preached the evangelical message of Soviet Zionism to growing audiences. To have kept quiet would have been to deny existence of a modern-day Zionist movement – something which contradicted the raison d’etre of Israel and which made nonsense of aliya campaigns in the West.

By the summer of 1969, the Riga activist had forced the issue both in the press and on the floor of the Knesset. The Prime Minister, Golda Meir, met a delegation of Soviet Jews. This may have been the turning-point in moving a more open position.

A decision was taken to “go public “. The letter of the eighteen and many others were presented by Golda in the Knesset, and by Tekoah at the UN, despite the fact that they had been circulating for weeks before among Soviet Jews in Israel.

The eighteen. Georgian families found themselves harassed. The Soviet press labelled the letter a “forgery” and tried to cajole the eighteen into writing another letter denouncing the first one. Even the threat of triaol and imprisonment could not persuade them to renounce their ideals.

Albert Mikhailashvili found himself out of work and forced to live in a rat-infested cellar with the other nine members of his family. Their famous first letter was followed by a second and a third, equally as eloquent and as defiant as the first.

By 1971, all had been permitted to leave for Israel, including one who, dying front cancer, was carried by stretcher on to the soil of Israel. In Georgia itself. Jews applied to leave in droves. Activists would enter a town and brazenly set up a stand to inform Jews how to leave. Villages were emptied when whole communities left. Today the letter of the eighteen has become folklore — even streets in Israel have been named after the signatories.

The emotional impact of the letter cannot be. attributed purely to the discovery of a “lost” community. The letter, twelve years on, is still perhaps one of the most stirring and powerful proclamations of Jewish liberation to have come out of the USSR:

They say there is a total of twelve million Jews in the world. But whoever thinks there are only twelve million of us is mistaken. For with those who pray for Israel are hundreds of millions who did not live to this day, who were tortured to death, who are no longer here. They walk shoulder to shoulder with us, unconquered and immortal, those who handed down to us the traditions of struggle and faith. This is why we want to go to Israel.                 

Jewish Chronicle 20 November 1981

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