Behind the Headlines the Plight of Yosef Begun
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Behind the Headlines the Plight of Yosef Begun

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Soviet Jewry activists have begun a daily vigil outside the Soviet Embassy here in anticipation of the trial of Moscow mathematician Dr. Yosef Begun, a self-employed teacher of Hebrew.

He is charged with “anti-Soviet propaganda,” but according to the National Council of Soviet Jewry, Begun, for whom this will be the third trial in six years, has offended the Soviet authorities because of his determination to teach Hebrew to fellow Soviet Jews waiting to emigrate to Israel.

Begun’s trial, expected to open in Moscow on July 25, is regarded with particular concern here as it follows the Soviet authorities’ claim that Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union is complete.

Begun’s plight, since he first applied unsuccessfully to leave for Israel in 1971, epitomizes the desire of many more Jews to go on aliya and of the Soviet authorities’ efforts to suppress them. Vague “reasons of state” were given for the frequent rejections of Begun’s emigration applications.


Born in Moscow in 1932, Begun faced his first trial in June 1977. He was charged with parasitism and sentenced to two years of exile in Siberia. As each day of pretrial detention counted as three days of exile, he was released in 1978.

On completion of his sentence, Begun returned to his native Moscow. He tried to obtain a residence permit there but was accused of “gross violation of internal passport regulations” and sentenced to another three years in Siberia.

After completing his second term then, he was again forbidden to return to Moscow and forced to settle in the small town of Strunino where he was briefly employed as a fireman.

Last November he was arrested a third time and charged with “anti-Soviet propaganda and instigation, ” which carries a maximum sentence of seven years imprisonment with an additional five years exile.

Begun tried to set himself up as a teacher of Hebrew after repeatedly losing the menial jobs, such as porter, telephone operator and nightwatchman, which he held after being dismissed from his scientific research post because of his wish to go to Israel.


However, although private language tuition is a recognized profession in the Soviet Union, it seems that Hebrew, which Begun knows, is a forbidden language. The Soviet authorities refused to recognize him as a Hebrew teacher and, even though he told them all the details of his income from it, accused him of parasitism.

A further paradox is that in 1975, two years before he was charged, Article 209 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) which deals with parasitism, was repealed under pressure of public opinion, and following criticism by the International Labor Organization which viewed it as an attempt to legalize forced labor.

Despite this, the Soviet authorities seem determined to punish Begun, who is the latest in a long line of persecuted Zionists. In this case, it is not just the right of a Soviet Jew to settle in Israel that is on trial; the real defendant is the Hebrew language, the heritage of ancient and modern Israel alike.

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