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. In the summer of 1969, 18 religious Jewish families from the Soviet republic of Georgia 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, as described in today’s Tablet article, “A Letter to Golda.” What follows are the full English translations of the three landmark texts that spawned the exodus of Soviet Jewry.
TO PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL MRS GOLDA MEIR
We ask you to give instruction to transmit the attached letters to the UN Commission for the Rights of Man and to the representative of Israel in the United Nations Joseph Tekoa.
We also ask that the letter should be published in the press and should be broadcast in Russian over the “Voice of Israel.” We will listen to the transmissions of the 2, 9, 16, and 23 of Elul and on the 1st of Tishrei (the first day of Rosh Hashana).
May God help us in our common struggle!
On instruction from 18 Jewish families:
Shabata [Shabtai] Elashvili [signed by hand]
Bension [Ben-Zion] Yakobishvili [signed by hand]
August 6 (22 of Av), 1969
To Yosef Tekoah
Representative of Israel at the United Nations
New York, USA
Attached hereto is a copy of a letter to the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations. We ask that you take immediate measures to ensure that we receive, in the earliest time possible, permission to emigrate to Israel.
We ask you also to circulate the attached letter among members of the UN and to publish it in the press, along with the full list of the undersigned, with first and last names, and if necessary, with their addresses.
For the time of fear has passed, and the time of action has arrived.
For if not I, who?
And if not today, when?
Signatures [all signed by hand, with full addresses]:
1 Elashvili, Shabata [Shabtai] Mikhailovich (Kutaisi)
2 Elashvili, Mikhail [Moshe] Shabatovich (Kutaisi)
3 Elashvili, Israil Mikhailovich (Kutaisi)
4 Eluashvili, Yakov Aronovich (Kutaisi)
5 Khikhinashvili, Mordekh Isakovich (Kutaisi)
6 Chikvashvili, Mikhail Samuilovich (Kutaisi)
7 Chikvashvili, Moshe Samuilovich (Kutaisi)
8 Beberashvili, Mikhail Rubenovich (Kutaisi)
9 Elashvili, Yakov Izrailevich (Kutaisi)
10 Mikhelashvili, Chaim Aronovich (Poti)
11 Mikhailashvili, Albert Chaimovich (Poti)
12 Mikhelashvili, Aron Chaimovich (Poti)
13 Tetruashvili, Chaim Davidovich (Kutaisi)
14 Tsitsuashvili, Isro Zakharovich (Kutaisi)
15 Tsitsuashvili, Efrem Isrovich (Kutaisi)
16 Yakobishvili, Bension [Ben-Zion] Shalomovich (Tbilisi)
17 Batoniashvili, Mikhail Rafaelovich (Kutaisi)
18 Tetruashvili, Mikhail Shalomovich (Kulashi)
Date: 22 of Av (August 6), 1969
To the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations
New York, United States of America
We, eighteen religious families from Georgia, ask you to help us emigrate to Israel. Each of us, invited by a relative in Israel, received from the authorized state bodies of the USSR the required questionnaires and filled them out. Each received verbal assurances that his emigration would encounter no impediments. Each, anticipating permission at any moment, sold his belongings and quit his job. But long months have passed, and for many—years, and we as yet have no permissions. We have sent hundreds of letters and telegrams: they vanished like tears in the desert sands. We hear curt spoken rejections; we see nothing in writing; nothing is explained to us; our destiny is of concern to no one.
But we are waiting, for we have faith.
We, eighteen religious families from Georgia, consider it necessary to explain why we want to emigrate to Israel.
Everyone knows how justly the Soviet Union implements its nationalities policy, whose theoretical foundations were formulated long ago by Vladimir Iliych Lenin, the founder of the state. Since time immemorial, there have been no pogroms, a pale of settlement or quota system in our country. Jews can walk the streets without worrying for their lives, settle wherever they want, and take up any position, up to that of a minister, which is apparent from the example of V. Dymshyts, deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR. In the Supreme Soviet, there is even a Jewish deputy—A. Chakovsky, editor-in-chief of Literaturnaya Gazeta.*
It is not racial discrimination, then, that moves us to leave the country. Is it then religious discrimination, perhaps? But there are synagogues in the country, nor are we forbidden from praying at home. Yet, our prayers are with Israel, for it is said: let my right hand forget its skill if I forget thee, oh Jerusalem. For we, religious Jews, believe that just as there is no Jew without faith, so is there no faith without tradition. What, then, is our faith and our tradition?
For a long time did the legions of Rome besiege Jerusalem. But despite the well-known horrors of the blockade—hunger, absence of water, diseases and much more—Jews did not abandon their faith and surrender. But even human powers have their limit, and in the end, barbarians stormed into the holy city. In this way, thousands of years ago, the Holy Temple was destroyed, and with it—the Jewish state. But the nation remained: although the Jews who were capable of holding a weapon did not surrender to the enemy, bringing death one upon the other instead, the bleeding wounded remained. The old, the women, and the children remained.
And one who could not flee was murdered on the spot.
And one who could, went into the desert, and one who survived, made way to other countries so as to keep the faith, pray and bide the time.
Henceforward were they destined to seek livelihood in foreign lands, among people who abhorred them. Showered with insults, smeared with slander, despised and persecuted, in blood and tears they earned their daily bread and raised their children.
Calloused were their hands, blooded were their souls. But what was most important was that the nation did not perish. And what a nation it was.
Jews gave people faith and revolutionaries, philosophers and scientists, rich men and sages, geniuses with the heart of a child and children with the eyes of old men. There is no discipline, no sphere of literature nor art to which Jews did not make a contribution. There is not one country that gave shelter to the Jews that they did not thank through their labor. What then did the Jews receive in return?
If all lived well, Jews anticipated other times in fear. And if all became worse off, Jews knew: their death hour has come, and then they hid or fled the land.
And he who fled started everything anew.
And he who couldn’t flee, perished.
And he who hid well, awaited other times.
Who didn’t hunt the Jews! In hounding them, all banded together.
Whenever mediocre generals lost a war, the culprit was found immediately among the Jews. Whenever a political opportunist failed to fulfill the heaps of promises he made, immediately the reason was found: Jews. They perished in the torture chambers of the Spanish Inquisition and in the concentration camps of fascist Germany. Like a bogeyman did the anti-Semites wave around the Dreyfus case in enlightened France and the Beilis case in illiterate Russia…
But the Jews had to endure everything.
In the meantime, they could have lived in peace, like everyone else. All they had to do was convert to a different faith. Some did just that: the fainthearted exist everywhere. But millions and millions preferred a martyr’s life and even death to apostasy.
And although they walked this earth without refuge, God found a place for all.
And although their ashes are scattered to the winds, memory of them lives.
In our veins flows their blood. Our tears are their tears.
The prophecy has come true: Israel has risen from ashes. We have not forgotten Jerusalem, and she needs our hands.
We are 18 who signed the letter. But he is wrong who thinks that we are only 18: there could have been many more signatures.
They say there are only 12 million Jews in the world. 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, who are no longer with us. 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…
History has placed a great mission upon the United Nations—to think of people and to assist them. This is why we demand that the UN’s Human Rights Commission take all possible measures and in the shortest possible time ensure that the government of the USSR permit us to emigrate. It is incomprehensible how in the late 20th century it is possible to forbid people to live where they want. Strange how it might be possible to forget high-sounding slogans about the right of nations to self-determination—and, of course, about the rights of people who comprise those nations.
We will wait months and years. If necessary, we will wait all our lives, but we will not renounce our faith and hope.
We believe: our prayers have reached God.
We know: our appeals will reach people.
For what we are asking for is little—let us go to the land of our forefathers…
Translated by Izabella Tabarovsky.
footnote* Ed. Note: This paragraph, as well as the next, was likely inserted by the 18 signatories of the letter, so that they could point to it if accused by the Soviet authorities of slandering the Soviet Union and engaging in anti-Soviet activity—some of the most frequent accusations Soviet prosecutors deployed against Jewish activists. These paragraphs would have offered them a fig leaf to protect themselves.
Izabella Tabarovsky is a Tablet contributor and a researcher with Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, where she focuses on the politics of historical memory in the former Soviet Union. Follow her on Twitter @IzaTabaro.