For generations, Jews lived in Russia and then the Soviet Union, suffering overt anti-Semitism, discrimination and physical threats to their lives. This was commonplace under the czars and inherited by the Soviets.
For the vast majority, there were no alternatives but to do their best to eke out a living, always under the threat of a pogrom that could leave many casualties.
While the USSR was quick to recognize Israel in 1948, and "officially" provided equality for Soviet Jews, state sponsored anti-Semitism and discrimination were institutionalized in the Communist party and throughout Soviet society.
Israel's birth in 1948 gave Soviet Jews hope and inspiration. Israel's first ambassador to the USSR, Golda Meir, was greeted as a hero of biblical proportion. As much as Israel gave a breath of life among millions of Soviet Jews, the Soviets fought to take the oxygen out of that. Severe legal crackdowns prevented any public expression of Jewish life, religion, culture or language.
Israel's astounding Six-Day War victory gave Soviet Jews renewed pride. They began to struggle against the Soviets to be able to leave. One couldn't simply get on a plane; they had to apply to a Soviet state body for permission.
Typically, simply applying to leave would lead to loss of their jobs, being thrown out of school and then arrested as social "parasites" in the state-controlled communist system. Nevertheless, many did apply to leave and suffered the consequences, including being refused permission repeatedly and ostracized as "refuseniks."
Today, airplane hijackings are associated with Arab terrorists and 9/11, to harm or threaten others. Yet 50 years ago this week, a group of Soviet Jews dreamed a bold plan to hijack an empty plane, not to hurt or terrorize anyone; they just wanted to leave. They felt they had no choice to get out of the USSR and to call awareness to the plight of all Soviet Jews. They also felt that they had nothing to lose because the Soviets robustly used fake criminal charges as the basis for imprisoning anyone who was deemed "anti-Soviet." Borrowing from the biblical Exodus, these Jews raised the stakes, not by walking out but by figuratively hijacking Pharaoh's chariots.
On June 15, 1970, the group bought all the seats on a small domestic flight from Leningrad. They made up the cover of going to a wedding: "Operation Wedding." One of the men, Mark Dymshits, was a former military pilot. They would restrain the pilots, fly to Sweden and eventually go to Israel. They understood the enormity of their plans, the risks and were prepared for it all.
The KGB was also ready. Given its web of civilian informers and professional ruthless agents, they had learned about the plan. Before boarding, the group was arrested and charged with "high treason," punishable by death. The trial took place that December. Dymshits and another leader, Eduard Kuznetsov, received a death sentence. The other sentences ranged from four to 15 years.
The Leningrad trial was a show trial by every definition, featuring the "best" of the Soviet justice system. The defendants displayed courage and pride, masking their fear with defiance of the discriminatory Soviet system. Responding to claims that they had betrayed their homeland they affirmed: "We have not betrayed the homeland—because Israel, not Russia, is our homeland."
Shortly before sentencing, the defendants and their families stood in the court and sang "Am Yisrael Chai" ("The People of Israel Live") for several minutes. They also recited the Hebrew prayer, Shema, affirming God's oneness. If the Soviets wanted a show, they got one.
After the police stopped the singing, Anatoly Altman was asked if he had anything to say. Noting the season and the significance of the Jewish victory over earlier tyrants, he declared, "I want to send a happy holiday to my brothers in Israel on the occasion of Hanukkah."
The Leningrad trial inspired a global outcry to reduce the death sentences. Presidents, prime ministers and even the pope spoke out. People around the world also came together to make what had previously been a movement to free Soviet Jews among students something that became widespread. For two decades this would be marked by public protests, anti-Soviet boycotts, and use of legislation and trade agreements to force Soviet concessions.
Ultimately, the death sentences of Dymshits and Kuznetsov were commuted to 15 years in prison, and the sentences for several other defendants were reduced. By the end of the decade, most of the Leningrad trial defendants had been released and emigrated to Israel.
As much as Israel had become an inspiration for Soviet Jews, the Leningrad trial was also a trigger for more Jews to apply to leave in what would become an exodus of a few hundred thousand in the early '70s, before the Soviets tightened and restricted emigration once again. The international outcry also caused Soviet authorities to increase Jewish emigration. Between 1960-1970, only 4,000 people legally emigrated from the USSR. After the trial, from 1971-1980, nearly 250,000 Jews received visas to leave.
The support abroad inspired Soviet Jews to assert their identity as well as the right to leave. The plight of Soviet Jews became more public as did the arrest and imprisonment of Soviet Jewish and other human rights leaders throughout the 1970s and 1980s. This in turn inspired a domino effect of Jews and Christians around the world highlighting their plight and struggling for their freedom.
Operation Wedding is very personal to me as well. Throughout my adolescence and college years, I was very active in the movement to free Soviet Jews. Though without a formal name, on my first visit to the USSR I planned my own "Operation Wedding" of sorts by planning to marry a Jewish woman in Moscow to get her out. I accepted the responsibility and also understood the consequences.
The 1970s saw a spike, then a shutdown, and then another spike in Jewish emigration from the USSR, a trend that continued in the 1980s until the Soviet Union collapsed and limits on Jewish emigration were lifted. Over the years, nearly 2 million Jews emigrated from the Soviet Union, equal to that of and no less significant than the Exodus from Egypt, marking the fulfillment of God's promise to ingather His people from the four corners of the world.
Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov, the Israeli-born daughter of Eduard and Sylva Zalmanson, two leaders of the group, directed a documentary about the hijacking titled Operation Wedding. It chronicles the historic event from a personal point of view.
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