About 40 activists from all over the world were saluted here Monday night for their contributions to the long struggle to liberate Soviet Jewry.
But the man in many ways most responsible for the triumphal occasion was probably the least known to the thousands of Soviet emigres, Israelis and visitors who packed the Binyanei Ha’uma, Jerusalem’s huge convention center.
His name is Nehemia Levanon, an elderly Estonian-born Jew and ex-kibbutznik who stepped modestly onto the stage, wearing a sports jacket and open collar.
His clandestine exploits, abetted by the young State of Israel in one of its more delicate covert undertakings, helped keep the spark of Judaism alive and encouraged Zionism among Soviet Jews as far back as the Stalin era.
Levanon’s 40-year secret, recounted in a stirring audio-visual presentation, gave an intriguing slant to the elaborate two-hour pageant titled “The Dream and the Struggle — The 40-Year Campaign for Soviet Jewry,” which the World Jewish Congress staged at its ninth plenary assembly here.
On hand also were famous names in the lexicon of Soviet Jewry activism and former prisoners of Zion.
Nobel laureate Eli Wiesel, one of the foremost chroniclers of the Holocaust, pursued his quest for answers, and activist Natan Sharansky, who spent nine years in the Soviet Gulag, supplied a few.
Wiesel had a questions for Soviet Jews: “Where did you get the courage to stand up to what was then an empire of fear and terror?
“You had no way to learn about Jewish history. Even before (Andrei) Sakharov and the dissident movement, you dared to come out and claim allegiance to our people and to its history and tradition. How did you do it?”
BEGAN IN STALIN’S TIME
Sharansky replied: “Where did we get our strength? Even if you know nothing (about Judaism) and are separated from your people, when you realize that history didn’t start for you with your birth or in 1917, but thousands of years ago; when you realize that history is on your side and God is on your side, you are never alone.”
If Sharansky provided inspiration, Levanon provided the nuts and bolts of the Soviet Jewry movement.
In what was one of the darkest periods for Soviet Jewry, he directed a secret unit in Israel known as the Lishkat Hakesher (Liaison Bureau). It had its antecedents in 1952, when faint cries of distress were heard from the Soviet Union.
In Moscow, Stalin was about to launch his campaign against Jews. In Tel Aviv, Isser Harel, then head of the Mossad, and Shaul Avigur, who headed the illegal immigration movement before 1948, pondered what the young Jewish state could do to save Soviet Jews.
After secret consultations, Levanon, an immigrant from Estonia, was summoned from his kibbutz, Kfar Blum. He estimated that a nucleus of hundreds, possibly thousands of Zionist-oriented Jews remained in the Soviet Union and had to be reached.
The prime minister at the time, David Ben-Gurion, approved a plan, and in 1953 the secret struggle for Soviet Jewry began under the code name “Bilu,” an acronym from a verse from Isaiah.
Levanon, his wife and two other families joined the Israeli Embassy staff in Moscow. Levanon was officially listed as agricultural attache. All were Bilu agents.
Their task was the secret distribution of prayerbooks, Bibles, dictionaries and pictures of Israel to Soviet Jews.
PROTESTS DURING KHRUSHCHEV VISIT
In 1955, however, the Soviets arrested 30 Jews and expelled the Bilu diplomats.
The Israeli government decided to arouse world opinion to the plight of Soviet Jews and it set up the Liaison Bureau in 1955 for that purpose, attached to the Prime Minister’s Office.
Attaches at Israeli embassies around the world were assigned the job of organizing local activities on behalf of Soviet Jews.
In 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin visited the West, they were met by hecklers and protesters organized by Levanon and his team.
The struggle became a battle of wits with the Soviet authorities.
Thousands of tourists went to the Soviet Union as clandestine envoys of Zionism and Jewish culture. They carried the materials concealed in their luggage, which they handed over to activists at secret rendezvous. Few knew it was Israel and Levanon who were behind the effort.
In 1967, Soviet Jews were emboldened to openly challenge the Kremlin.
A turning point in the struggle was reached in June 1970 with the failed attempt by Jewish activists in Riga and Leningrad to hijack an airplane and fly to Israel.
The world was outraged by the severity of the sentences imposed on those caught. As a result, the first World Conference of Jewish Communities for Soviet Jewry was held in Brussels in 1971.
ISRAEL KNEW OF HIJACKING PLOT
Officials confirmed for the first time here Monday night that the hijackers had sought Israel’s prior approval for their bold move, though this fact was reported in Howard Sachar’s 1985 book “Diaspora.” A code was arranged to indicate either go-ahead or abandon the enterprise.
Levanon consulted with then Prime Minister Golda Meir, who decided in the negative. The mission was scrapped, but the hijackers were caught anyway. All were released from prison between 1976 and 1981.
The 1970s was the decade of the refuseniks. Levanon devised ways to dramatize their plight and was a key figure in mobilizing foreign governments and Jewish communities to join the struggle.
He went into semi-retirement in the 1980s. A few years ago, he visited the Soviet Union.
At the awards ceremony, he summed up his activities, saying “it was the historic triangle of Israel, world Jewry and Soviet Jewry that succeeded in redeeming Soviet Jews.”
As for the problems of absorbing tens of thousands of Soviet Jews in Israel, Levanon observed, “All my life I have been an optimist. We will find a way, but we still need the forces of the triangle to succeed.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.