Recounting an Ordeal: One of the Five Jewish Activists Arrested During Geneva Summit Says They Were
Menu JTA Search

Recounting an Ordeal: One of the Five Jewish Activists Arrested During Geneva Summit Says They Were

Steven Feuerstein, a 23-year-old New Yorker, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he and four other activists for Soviet Jewry were treated harshly by Swiss police who arrested them on November 19, during the Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting in Geneva, after they staged a peaceful sit-in at the local office of Aeroflot, the Soviet airline.

Feuerstein, who is national director of the Student Zionist Council of the United States, said he and his companions were held in solitary confinement for much of their 48 hours in custody.

They were also placed in cells with hardened criminals, subjected to strip searches and other indignities, handcuffed and forced to go without food for 20-24 hours because no kosher food was provided at the Champs Dollon prison where they spent their first day in custody.


Feuerstein said that although he and two of the other activists are Americans, the U.S. Consulate in Geneva made no attempt to contact them or send a representative to visit them while they were in police custody, normally a routine practice when U.S. nationals are arrested abroad. He said a formal protest would be lodged with the State Department in Washington in the next few days.

The others arrested with Feuerstein were Rabbi Aviv Weiss of Riverdale, N.Y., chairman of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry; David Makovsky, chairman of the World Union of Jewish Students; Moshe Ronen, a Canadian, who is chairman of the North American Jewish Student Network; and Yosef Mendelevich, an Israeli who spent II years in a Soviet prison before he was permitted to emigrate.

Feuerstein said his personal suspicion is that they were ignored by the U.S. Consulate because of pressure from the Russians. He noted that the Canadian and Israeli Consulates in Geneva each sent officials to try to see Ronen and Mendelevich, respectively though they were turned away by the police.

Feuerstein told the JTA that he went to Geneva at the invitation of the North American Jewish Student Network to participate in demonstrations for Soviet Jews with about 800 other students from the U.S., Israel and about a half dozen West European countries. He said he and his four companions decided a “more dramatic” message was needed to reach the leaders of the two super powers.


He said they decided to sit-in at the Aeroflot office because an airline is symbolic of open borders, yet no Jew can board a plane to leave Russia. He said when they entered the office at II a.m. on Tuesday, November 19, Weiss went to the ticket counter, produced a credit card and asked to book a flight for Anatoly Shcharansky from Moscow to Israel.

Feuerstein said the office was staffed by two women. One made a hurried telephone call and within five minutes, four KGB men showed up. He said the KGB agents pulled the yarmulkas from the heads of the activists, grabbed their prayer books and threw them into the gutter outside the office–all in the presence of about 30-40 reporters who had been alerted to the sit-in.

Feuerstein said his proudest moment was when Mendelevich produced a large photograph of Shcharansky and slapped it over a portrait of Lenin hanging in the office.

The sit-in lasted about 90 minutes before 30-40 Swiss policemen entered the office. Feuerstein said he and the others lay flat on the floor offering no resistance. They were handcuffed and driven to the local police station where they were interrogated separately for about II hours. They were then placed individually into cells about two feet by three feet in size.

Feuerstein said that when they refused the food offered them, Ronen was allowed to go to a nearby restaurant, handcuffed and heavily guarded, to procure kosher food. But after they were transported to Champs Dollon prison, this was not allowed.


Each of the five was taken separately to the court on November 20 where, after many hours of waiting, they were brought before a magistrate. The Soviets had them arrested for trespassing and damage to property. But when no Soviet representative appeared to make the formal charge, the magistrate threw out the case and ordered the five released.

The police, however, ignored the release order and all were taken back in handcuffs to the police station where, again, they were allowed to send out for kosher food. On November 21, after the summit ended, each was driven separately to the airport, escorted by police aboard an aircraft and formally expelled from Switzerland.

Feuerstein stressed repeatedly his conviction that Jews must not remain silent or rely on “quiet diplomacy.” “We will not be pacified by political rhetoric,” he said. He said there is “no question the message sent in Geneva was received on all levels.” But he is reserving judgement as to whether the summit will produce relief for Soviet Jews.

“We will not be satisfied until Anatoly Shcharansky and all other Jewish prisoners are freed, until every Soviet Jew who wishes to boards a plane for Israel,” Feuerstein said.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund