Remember, remember not
Veteran activists say events marking 40 years of the struggle to free Soviet Jewry ignored their efforts.
For the past several months there have been special events in Israel and abroad - conferences, seminars, memorial days and an exhibition - celebrating the courageous struggle of the Jews of the Soviet Union to immigrate to Israel.
The events were initiated by a public committee headed by former minister Natan Sharansky, which received the support of official organizations including the government, the President's Residence, the Jewish Agency, Nativ, and the Diaspora Museum. All the events mark "40 years of struggle." The organizers felt that the turning point, the watershed, was the Six-Day War in 1967.
But the way in which they have chosen to describe and present the struggle is angering several surviving veterans of Nativ, the clandestine organization that sought to create ties with Soviet Jewry, as well as family members of those who have passed away.
"An attempt has been made to ignore and deny the tremendous activity that was carried out for the sake of the Jews of the Soviet Union from the establishment of the State," says Drora Goldschmidt, the secretary of Shaul Avigur, the first director of Nativ, who served until 1970.
"They are erasing 15 years of intensive activity," adds historian Prof. Miri Eliav Feldon, the daughter of Dr. Binyamin Eliav (Lubotsky), one of the first members of Nativ.
In other words, this argument is over historical memory. Beneath the surface bubbles the tension between the veteran Israelis who founded Nativ and worked on its behalf until the 1970s, and the immigrants from the Soviet Union - refuseniks, Prisoners of Zion and immigration activists - who came to Israel in the 1970s and the 1980s and have been dominating Nativ for the past 15 years and setting the tone.
Nativ was founded in 1951, at the initiative of several leading activist of the Mossad l'Aliyah Bet (a clandestine organization that brought in illegal immigrants), before the establishment of the state.
The goal, which was achieved in the end, was to create ties with those Jews in the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe who would eventually be called, as in the title of Elie Wiesel's book, "The Jews of Silence." The purpose was to arouse Jewish awareness among them, to spur them into cultural activity so that they would eventually become Zionists and immigrate to Israel.
For the first two years, Nativ was part of the Mossad, and was headed by its founder Reuven Shiloah. It operated out of a small basement in the Defense Ministry compound in Tel Aviv.
In its early days the organization suffered from childhood diseases, and also suffered a serious shock. That was when journalist Dan Pines of the now-defunct daily Davar, invented with the help of his typewriter an "underground" that supposedly was operating in the Soviet Union. Pines received money for handling the "agents," which he used to purchase medicine abroad for his sick daughter, at a time when it was unavailable in Israel. The head of the Shin Bet security services at the time, Isser Harel, exposed the deception, and Pines was tried by his peers from Mapai (the forerunner of Labor), the ruling party.
In 1953 Nativ became an independent organization subordinate to the Prime Minister's Office and headed by Shaul Avigur, a senior aide to defense minister and prime minister David Ben Gurion during the War of Independence. Avigur had been the head of the Mossad l'Aliyah Bet.
Nativ, which until the 1980s was part of Israel's intelligence community, was divided into two sections. One was in charge of all the operational activity, and operated in utmost secrecy. The obsession of the Nativ founders with maintaining secrecy was so great that they ordered the destruction of many documents, and thus undermined future efforts to preserve and write history. In recent years, isolated documents have been found in the Nativ archive that are marked "read and destroy." Many others were in fact destroyed.
For the sake of the clandestine activity, during which intelligence information about the Soviet Union was gathered as well, Nativ established branches in Israeli's diplomatic missions. Members of Nativ, using Israeli merchant marine ships that visited the Soviet ports, and by means of chance delegations and tourists, secretly brought in dictionaries, prayer books, song books and all possible material in Hebrew, which was forbidden in the Soviet Union because it was defined as "Zionist propaganda."
The Soviet regime considered Nativ a dangerous espionage organization, and ordered the KGB to fight it. During the 1950s and 1960s, several of the Nativ emissaries who operated under diplomatic cover - such as Yaakov Sharett, the prime minister's son - were arrested, and others were expelled from the Soviet Union.
The second section was Bar, which was in charge of diplomatic-information-propaganda activity. Under the slogan "Let my people go," Bar tried to enlist world public opinion for the Jews behind the Iron Curtain. The head of Bar was journalist and intellectual Binyamin Eliav, who began his political career in the Revisionist right when he he served as secretary to Ze'ev Jabotinsky. After the establishment of the state, he became a member of the social-democratic Mapai.
"My father," says his daughter, Miri Eliav Feldon, "worked with intellectuals, journalists, members of parliament and leaders in Europe and Latin America. He and others enlisted intellectuals and philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell, and had them sign petitions. He believed that the struggle for Soviet Jewry did not have to be anti-Communist in nature or to be part of the Cold War."
Among the members of Eliav's staff were young people like Wiesel, who later became a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and Dr. Meir Rosenne, who later became Israeli ambassador to France and the United States.
"I recently visited the Diaspora Museum, to see the exhibit marking 40 years since the struggle of the "refuseniks," wrote Rosenne in Haaretz. "This is an important exhibition in light of the central role the struggle for Soviet Jewry played in our lives and its importance in Jewish history. I was sorry to see that several leading figures who were among the initiators and leaders of the struggle, were not represented - people like Shaul Avigur, Yeshayahu Dan and Binyamin Eliav, whose names were unfortunately forgotten."
"Unfortunately," adds Eliav Feldon, "the organizers manipulated memory. They are appropriating history."
In response, MK Yuli Edelstein, a former Prisoner of Zion and a member of the public organizing committee, said: "We regret if there is a feeling that someone was shortchanged. That was not the intention. There are members of Nativ on the committee, including two of its leaders, David Bartov and Tzvi Magen. We knew in advance that the issue is not simple, and we spent a long time deliberating about it.
"It is clear to us that the struggle did not begin 40 years ago. There is no argument that many people were active before then too, and that there were also Prisoners of Zion in the 1950s and the early 1960s. Our emphasis is on the open struggle. From that point of view, there is no question that the words "The Temple Mount is in our hands" reverberated, and aroused the Jews of the Soviet Union. That was the formative moment."