Fifty years ago, the Soviet Zionist movement—which in America is known largely as a “refuseniks” movement—sparked a rebirth of identity unlike anything seen in recent Jewish history. Instead of letting themselves quietly fade away through assimilation—the fate that the Soviet government intended for its Jews—a small but mighty group of activists rediscovered a connection to Jewishness and brought the rest of Soviet Jewry along with it.
For those activists, a pivotal point in their movement came on Nov. 10, 1969. On that day, a number of them gathered secretly in Riga, Latvia, to plan their next steps. Gershon Ben-Oren, who came to the meeting from the republic of Georgia, remembers waking up in his Zionist friends’ apartment and reaching out for the shortwave radio next to his bed. As was his habit back home, he wanted to hear “the voices”—Voice of Israel, Voice of America, and other “hostile” broadcasts.
The news that poured into the apartment gave him a jolt. Eighteen religious Jewish families from the Soviet republic of Georgia, the announcer said, have appealed to the government of Israel and the United Nations with a group letter, asking them to prevail on the Soviet authorities to let them emigrate to Israel. Full names, addresses, and signatures of the heads of the 18 families accompanied the letter. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir had read out excerpts from the letter to the Knesset and instructed Yosef Tekoa, Israel’s U.N. representative, to convey it to the U.N.’s Human Rights Commission.
The news sent shock waves throughout the Soviet Zionist movement and the Jewish world outside the USSR. It gave a black eye to the Soviet self-image as conveyed by the Soviet propaganda machine that was just then engaged in an elaborate effort to convince the world that Soviet Jews felt no connection to Israel or American Jews, and had no interest in leaving their beloved socialist motherland.
The move was brazen in a way that nearly defied comprehension. In a country where a gathering of three people could be viewed as an anti-Soviet conspiracy—and, in the case of Jews, of a Zionist, the most dangerous, variety—more than a dozen people wrote a group letter to a foreign government, and took the extra step of signing it with their real names and addresses. This in itself was chutzpah. But the text of the letter was no less extraordinary. In stirring, exalted Russian, the writers evoked the Torah, thousands of years of Jewish history, and the principles of human rights to make the case for repatriation.
This letter was not an appeal for help in the face of racial-based anti-Semitism or religious persecution. Nor did it make a case based on the principle of family reunification—the one argument that moved Soviet authorities to permit an exit from the country. Instead, the letter writers built their argument on the idea of Jewish peoplehood and its eternal connection to the land of Israel. “The prophecy has come true: Israel has risen from the ashes. We have not forgotten Jerusalem, and she needs our hands.”
“They say there are only 12 million Jews in the world,” the letter read in one of its most oft-quoted passages. “But he errs who believes that there are only 12 million of us. For with those who pray for Israel are hundreds of millions of those who did not live to this day, those who were martyred. … They march with us in the same column, unvanquished and immortal, they who transmitted to us traditions of struggle and faith. That is why we want to go to Israel.”
The dramatic conclusion of the letter caused more than a few eyes in the Knesset to tear up as Golda, herself deeply moved, read it aloud: “We will wait months and years. If necessary, we will wait all our lives, but we will not renounce our faith and our hope. We believe: our prayers have reached God. Our appeal will reach people. For what we are asking for is little—let us go to the land of our forefathers.”
The Letter of the Eighteen, as it came to be known, is a striking document to consider from the distance of time and geography. (Read the full English text of the letter here.) It arguably was one of the most consequential moments in the history of European Jewry of the past half-century. It inspired Jewish activists within the Soviet Union. It galvanized American Jews into action. It moved the Israeli government to radically shift its policy from clandestine support for Soviet Jewish emigration to an open cause. (The letter was the first time that the Israelis had raised the issue of Soviet Jewry before the U.N.) And it paved the way for the ultimate exodus of 1.5 million Soviet Jews from the USSR.
Few American Jews today are familiar with this letter. Yet in a way that no one could have envisioned, the combination of adverse realities that American Jewry is facing today bears similarities to that moment in the history of Soviet Jewry. Questions of identity, loss of connection to Judaism and Jewishness, and, ultimately, the possibility of vanishing from history confront us as well.
But there is more. Against our tediously one-note conversations about Israel, the passion and the longing of the Eighteen tell of something that we ourselves seem to have forgotten. Preoccupied with our complaints and criticisms, our hurt feelings and righteous indignation, have we not let something deeper and more meaningful about our connection to Israel slip away? The story of the Letter of the Eighteen surely has something to teach us in this moment of our existential crisis.
Jews are believed to have come to Georgia—a small, ancient Orthodox Christian country climbing from the eastern shores of the Black Sea to the sky-high mountain ranges of the Caucasus—2,600 years ago, at the time of the Babylonian exile. In the early 19th century, Georgia became part of the Russian and, later, the Soviet empire. Yet, separated from Moscow by distance and high mountains, it managed to retain its distinct character, church, and language.
Because of their origins, Georgian Jews were unique among the millions of Soviet Ashkenazi Jews, and their experience bore significant differences from others. One of these differences was the fact that in Georgia, anti-Semitism was kept “on low temperature,” according to Ben-Oren, the former Zionist activist who came to be a prominent scholar of Georgian Jewry.
Another was that many Georgian Jews were openly religious in a way that was rare in the rest of the USSR. Men could wear a kippa and tzitzit in public. Large and upbeat celebrations of Shabbat were part of life. Even Communist party members circumcised their sons. A Lubavitcher Hasid from Soviet Uzbekistan, who came to the predominantly Jewish town of Kulashi in 1961 hoping to find help there with his own emigration problems, described the scene:
I arrived there on a Friday and I saw dozens of Jewish women going to the shochet […] to slaughter their chickens for Shabbos. … In Samarkand, this was dangerous, but in Kulashi it was done openly and fearlessly.
[But this] was nothing compared to the moving sight I witnessed on Friday night in the big shul. The place was crowded with old and young, and many children were present. Many of them couldn’t even get inside and had to stand outside!
I had visited many places in Russia, but I had never seen young people in shul, and I certainly hadn’t seen small children. … I couldn’t restrain myself and tears of joy flowed from my eyes.
It’s hard to imagine that a hundred thousand Georgian Jews were all equally fervent, but that such groups existed at all in the USSR—and of all places in Georgia, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, whose anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist conspiracy fantasies had caused so many Jewish deaths—is striking.
In Georgia, it was also possible to engage in private commerce—something strictly forbidden by the USSR. To be sure, Soviet law did apply there, but the republic was small and Moscow was far. It was easier to convince some local Georgian official to bend the law a little by offering to share some of your income with him.
The Eighteen were by and large well-off people. Some appeared to be party to a small consumer-goods manufacturing plant. Others did a side trade in precious stones. They had big homes and government connections. They lacked for nothing themselves, and they helped out other activists. One of the two main leaders of the group, Ben-Zion Yakubishvili, sent money to the more vulnerable Zionist activists in Russia, who had no means to support themselves if they lost their jobs.
These Jews did not need to go to Israel to escape poverty or anti-Semitism. So what was behind their passionate drive for Israel? “We were traditional, grew up on the Torah, brachot,” Eti Ben-Zvi explained to me at her home in Lod over khachapuri, the irresistible Georgian national dish. Eti is the daughter of Shabtai Elashvili, the other of the two leaders of the Eighteen, and sister of Moshe Elashvili—the last living signatory of the letter. “Every Shabbat, it was Kiddush and Shalom aleichem malachei hasharet—singing at full voice. Father wore kippah, he laid tefillin. He said: ‘We are Jews; we won’t be quiet.’”
Ben-Oren echoed her story: “The prayer—Blessed are You, Hashem, Who rebuilds Jerusalem, which I read and which all Jews read—it entered into our heads.” His wife, Rina, his comrade-in-arms in the Georgian Zionist movement, added that her husband’s mother “used to tell him stories in the evening about Jerusalem—the only city, a very holy city. That a time will come and all the Jews would gather there and live there. It was rooted in us.”
Ben-Oren—known then by his Georgian last name Tsitsuashvili—was not himself a signatory of that letter, but he was one of the prominent leaders of the Georgian Zionist movement. Some 10 years before, in 1960, he had fashioned Georgian Zionists’ most potent tool: a Hebrew-language textbook. Rina typed up the explanations in Georgian, he wrote in the Hebrew phrases and grammar exercises by hand (they did not have a Hebrew typewriter), a friend photographed the 101 pages—and voila, they had a book to raise the Georgian Jews’ consciousness. (To prevent the KGB from tracking the origins of the book, they ascribed authorship to a long-dead rabbi and drowned the typewriter with Georgian typescript in a local stream.)
Shabtai’s answer to the question of why he wanted to take his family to Israel was simple: Israel was the state of the Jews. “A Jew must live in his country,” he told his children. It did not matter that they had a big house in Georgia: “We’ll live on a kibbutz, we’ll work the land. If there is war, I’ll go to war with my four sons and my sons-in-law to fight for the country.” Five of Shabtai’s uncles had been at Herzl’s First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897. Zionism, his children told me, was in his blood.
Multiple mysteries surround the Letter of the Eighteen. Who exactly wrote it in such beautiful and flawless Russian? (For all of the signatories, Russian was a second language.) How did it make it into Israeli hands? There is a story of a mysterious Norwegian Jewish engineer who traveled from Tbilisi to Oslo and there conveyed the letter to the Israeli Embassy. The letter writers had to maintain absolute secrecy to avoid discovery, keeping information even from their own family members. They may have been at home in Georgia, but had the KGB intercepted the letter before it crossed the Soviet border, things would have turned out badly.
Why did they take on such a risk? By the time they wrote it, on Aug. 6, 1969, they had been waiting for months and even years for permission to emigrate. They had completed the paperwork. Government officials signaled approval. They gave up their work, sold their houses and businesses and moved in with relatives. But the clock ticked and nothing happened. One day Shabtai was diagnosed with leukemia and began to deteriorate quickly. And so they had to act.
Moshe told me of the emotional period that followed the dispatching of the letter. “Two-and-a-half months passed and nothing happened. We started to fear: Maybe it didn’t get where it was intended,” he told me. “And now I’m in bed, depressed, and I’m worried—not just about me but also about my father and mother.” In the letter they asked Meir and Tekoa to publish it, and so all he seemed to be able to do was to keep turning the dial on his radio from one Russian-language foreign broadcast to another.
“One morning I hear on the radio: Georgia. I started to flip through all the stations, they were all talking about this. I shifted to Israel—they are talking about this, too! I jumped out of my bed like crazy and ran to find my father. I ran into the synagogue. Father was there, in the middle of the Amida, so I couldn’t talk to him. I stood and looked at him, and then suddenly Father looked up at me, and I looked at him, and I signaled, ‘Yes! Yes!’ He didn’t have the strength to continue praying. I ran up to him, we grabbed each other, hugged each other, we started to cry like little children.”
Despite the massive international publicity that their letter received, the Eighteen would wait another year and a half before they would be let go. Moscow played smoke and mirrors while trying to neutralize the damage. It claimed that the letter was fake, then produced an “interview” asserting that none of the Eighteen “had sold their effects,” nor quit their jobs—nor, in fact, requested to go to Israel. Men from Moscow showed up in Georgia and went door to door trying to pressure the signatories to withdraw their signatures. But the global publicity did its work: The Soviet bureaucracy didn’t dare to persecute them the way it did other Jewish activists.
Emboldened by the outcome of the letter, Georgian Jews continued to write petitions and to demonstrate. Some traveled to Moscow to hold hunger strikes in front of the iconic Central Telegraph building in Moscow. Ben-Oren drove all over Georgia to collect signatures under other appeals for emigration. One of these amassed 531 names. (“Israel or death!” wrote Ben-Oren by hand on the cover, right above his own signature.) And they inspired others. Over the next year, 124 petitions were submitted to the U.N.
Their effort opened the floodgates: Some 100,000 Soviet Jews would be allowed to make aliyah in the early 1970s. Moscow hoped that once these dissidents were gone, things would go back to normal. They never did.
We may never be able to fill in the remaining details about the origins and exact travel path of the letter. The man who knew answers to the mysteries of the Letter of the Eighteen was Moshe’s father Shabtai. He told his children that once they were safely in Israel, he would tell them everything. But by the time they landed at Lod on Pesach of 1971, Shabtai was at death’s door. Ambulances awaited them on the tarmac and took him straight to the Hadassa Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem. He passed away just a few weeks later on Shavuot. The family still has the letter of condolences that Golda Meir sent them upon his passing.
But these specifics matter less than the more fundamental questions it raises. Why does a group of Jews, cut off from the rest of the Jewish people, choose to preserve its culture and religion when it is easier not to? Why does it feel a spiritual and emotional connection to its ancestral land that was worth sacrificing everything else for? Fifty years after 18 Georgian Jewish families wrote that letter, these questions are perhaps more relevant to the lives of American Jews than ever before.
Izabella Tabarovsky is a contributing writer at Tablet and a researcher with the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center focusing on the politics of historical memory in the former Soviet Union. Follow her at @IzaTabaro.