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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

In the end however we purchased all twelve seats for a small plane, while four members of our group for whom there was no room were to wait for us in a forest.

YM: Where was the flight supposed to be from?

RYM: From Leningrad to Sweden. We would take over in the midst of the flight.

I’ll tell you a very interesting point concerning what was known as the “Leningrad Group” or the “Leningrad Zionist Committee”. They discussed what they knew of the plan and came to a decision that it was counter-productive and dangerous, not just for Butman [the head of the Leningrad ulpan with whom Mark Dymshits had shared his hijacking idea] but for the whole national movement and that we’d all go to prison. They wanted Butman to disclose all of the details and they demanded that it be stopped.

While Butman felt that it was the solution to our problem, they insisted on the slower process of Jewish revival, group meetings, some Jewish theatre, etc. We felt that under the Soviet reality their path was a waste of time.

When they felt that Butman was too stubborn and wouldn’t give up they proposed a compromise and suggested that the Israeli government be contacted in order to ask if it’s helpful to Israel. At that time some Israeli tourists would come to our activist meetings so we had a way to send an inquiry and receive an answer. It was obvious though that the answer would be negative. We in Riga told them that we cannot involve the Israeli government in any way since it was dangerous for Israel and its state interests. But some people in Leningrad were afraid and the request was sent. Finally we got a veto from Israel. It turned out that the request made it to the desk of Golda Meir, the Prime Minister at the time, so the answer we received was real.

We then decided that since we in Riga are not Leningrad, we’ll do it alone. In this way the whole plan came to our group.

YM: Did you really think there was a chance to succeed? After all, this was the Soviet Union and the KGB?

RYM: Did you ever hear of Mordechai Anielewicz and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising? Did you think they had real plans?

Sometimes it happens in your life that you simply feel it’s the right thing to do. People that make all kinds of calculations frequently never act. We felt, at least a few of us, that it was our mission to do it for Am Yisrael [the Jewish people]. Although I never actually knew whether all sixteen of the people drafted for the mission believed it was a way to sacrifice oneself for a greater cause, I knew for certain that for me and two or three other leaders of the group that’s the way we felt. We had to start, we had to cry out.

15 June 1970 – The Day of the Planned Hijacking

YM: What was going through your mind the morning of the attempted hijacking? Were you scared? Worried?

RYM: I can only speak for myself. I felt that I was a soldier of the Israeli army, going out to perform the task the best way I can. The moment you are in battle you don’t think, you are not permitted to think. You have to go straight and fight.

YM: So what happened that day? How was the hijacking foiled?

RYM: Perhaps because of the blown operation that started in Leningrad a lot of people knew about the plans, so certainly it somehow reached the eyes and ears of the KGB. They then decided to let us play into their hands in order to arrest us red-handed on the spot. This way they could vilify our Zionist activities – “hijackers, bandits, weapons” – in order to crush the growing national movement exactly as the friends of the Leningrad Committee thought they would.

You have to understand that since this was not Stalin’s time but rather a time when Soviet Russia felt they had to be closer to the west, our movement had created a certain dilemma for the Soviet authorities. Namely how could they arrest people that only wanted to learn Hebrew or religion at a time that they were trying to be “socialism with a human face”? Such a move would certainly not make them look good. For this reason our hijacking plan gave them the perfect pretext to arrest us.

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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