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Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch, Pioneering Russian Refusenik


Rabbi Mendelevitch and Avital Sharansky meet then-President Reagan and Vice President Bush.

Rabbi Mendelevitch and Avital Sharansky meet then-President Reagan and Vice President Bush.
Photo Credit: White House archives

So I began my activities in 1964. I’m proud that I’m from the first generation of the Zionist movement after the war. I’m glad and feel privileged that things happened the way they did. Please keep in mind however that the reason I came to the forest was not by chance, it was not simply a coincidence. The moment I got involved, I felt this was exactly what I was looking for. I felt I was prepared for this.

Anatomy of a Hijacking

YM: I’m jumping ahead to 1970 and the hijacking attempt. Where did the idea come from? I mean, did you or one of your friends just wake up one day and say “hmm, let’s hijack an airplane”?

RYM: Don’t forget I began my activities in 1964 so by 1970 I was already involved for six years in a Jewish movement. In 1969 a whole underground national Jewish movement was created and I was appointed editor of a newsletter.

YM: How many people were involved in this national underground movement?

RYM: I’d say hundreds, although being an informal movement there was no exact number. Nevertheless, I’d say the core group was about one hundred people.

At this time Mr. Mark Dymshits, a former pilot in the Soviet air force, became a member of an underground ulpan (a place where Hebrew is taught) in Leningrad. He was a Zionist and for the first time he met a lot of people that felt like him. It made him think about our aspiration to do something so he suggested the idea of hijacking a plane to the head of the ulpan, Mr. Hillel Butman. Then through connections the idea came to me in Riga and thus it started.

YM: What was the goal of the hijacking and what was the logistical plan?

RYM: Let’s start with the goal. On an individual level everyone’s dream was to go to Israel, something that was simply impossible for Soviet Jews.

YM: Were you considered “refuseniks”?

RYM: Technically this was before the refuseniks which started in the 1970s although we were certainly similar. People simply couldn’t go abroad to any country, not just specifically to Israel.

So the first goal was a private one. I dreamt of being drafted into the Israeli army and studying in a yeshiva. In the Soviet Union there were no yeshivas and nothing similar.

The second goal was a national one to publicize our struggle for freedom, “let my people go.” We found out later that a parallel movement had started during approximately the same time period, mainly in the United States or as we used to say in “the free world.” It’s very interesting that both movements started together in the 1960s. Yaakov Birnbaum, Rabbi Kahane and others raised the issues exactly as we were feeling them. It was certainly from Heaven.

We felt we had to publicize the fact that there really were Jews in Soviet Russia that wanted to come back to their Jewish roots and were not interested in being assimilated and becoming a part of the Soviet nation. This was to counter the Soviet propaganda at the time which had succeeded in making an impression in the west that the Jewish issue was solved.

The lingering question was whether the Russians were so strong in their propaganda or the people in the west were simply ready to buy the lies in order to carry on with their comfortable lives – “It’s a pity but there’s nothing we can do.” Although we didn’t know all the details about the Jewish community in the west, we were surprised that it was so silent. We wanted to yell out “We’re still alive. Am yisrael chai! Don’t you care about us?”

Regarding the logistical part, Mr. Dymshits was himself a pilot. He felt if we all buy tickets and get on the plane we can just take over. While normal hijackers endanger the pilot and intimidate him, this was not our case.

The first plan was to take over a big airplane that we wanted to load up with Jewish families and children in order to demonstrate that it’s not just a small group of young men. Thus no one could call us hijackers.

About the Author: Yoel Meltzer is a freelance writer living in Jerusalem. He can be contacted via http://yoelmeltzer.com.


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One Response to “Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch, Pioneering Russian Refusenik”

  1. Tzvi Fishman says:

    Rabbi Mendelevitch is indeed a true Jewish hero. His book "Unbroken Spirit" should be read by everyone. Especially by our young people who are so desperate for true Jewish heroes of bravery, idealism, and substance. I recommend the book highly.

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