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A Discordant Note is Struck at Solidarity Sunday for Soviet Jewry

May 5, 1987
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For the first time in the history of Solidarity Sunday, a discordant note was struck Sunday when a recognized leader of a Soviet Jewry movement, Yosef Mendelevich, was denied permission to speak but took the microphone forcibly and insisted he be allowed to make a statement.

Mendelevich took the dramatic action in front of a crowd estimated at 200,000 who gathered at the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza across from the UN to hear speeches from local officials, religious leaders, President Reagan, Premier Yitzhak Shamir and Natan Sharansky.

Mendelevich has been living in Israel since 1981 following his release after 11 years in six Soviet prisons for his role in a desperate attempt to steal an airplane and escape to Israel via Sweden. Since arriving in Israel, Mendelevich, the chairman of the Soviet Jewry Education and Information Center in Jerusalem, has been one of the most outspoken leaders in the cause of Soviet Jewry.

He spoke out strongly in March following reports of an agreement made in Moscow between Morris Abram, chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ), Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, and Soviet officials. The unconfirmed agreement would permit up to 11,000 Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel this year directly via Rumania.

Mendelevich, among other Soviet Jewry activists, blasted the suggestion by Abram that the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which links U.S. trade with the Soviet Union to Jewish emigration, be lifted when a sizable, but unspecified, number of Jews are permitted to emigrate.


On Sunday, Mendelevich decried complacency within the mainstream Soviet Jewry organizations — the NCSJ and the Coalition to Free Soviet Jewry, which organizes the annual demonstration. The Coalition denied Mendelevich’s request last week to be added to the roster of speakers. In fact, Mendelevich has not been invited to speak at the rally since 1981, the year of his release, when he was the featured speaker at Solidarity Sunday.

Taking the microphone from his long-time friend and former fellow prison inmate Natan Sharansky, Mendelevich introduced himself and said, “Nobody invited me here to speak, but I will speak.” Alan Pesky, Coalition chairman, tried unsuccessfully to prevent Mendelevich from speaking.

He lashed out at the “false optimism” he claimed was engendered by statements made by Abram on his return from Moscow. Abram told the JTA Monday that he had only reported on his impressions of meetings with Soviet officials but never said agreements were made. Abram said he expected the Soviets to agree shortly to direct flights for Soviet Jews to Israel through Rumania. Abram also said he thought some 11,000 Jews would be permitted to emigrate within the year.


Abram told the JTA Monday that Mendelevich “forced himself on a platform for other people. Apparently he has no platform of his won.” But Abram said he agreed with Sharansky and other activists on the fundamental principles: no relaxation or waiver of trade restrictions until “very substantial emigration” is seen.

Abram said he deliberately avoided putting figures or caps on the numbers necessary for a waiver. “Fifty-one thousand in 1979 shows what is possible in a year,” he said. “Then there should be just a waiver. The Jackson-Vanik amendment should be imbedded in concrete.”

In particular, Mendelevich urged Soviet Jewry activists to support a total ban on trade with the Soviet Union. He called for an end to American bank loans to the Soviets.

Abram called Mendelevich’s position very extreme. “A ban on trade is something no one in the organized community has advocated. I frankly do not know what Mendelevich is arguing for. It’s not possible to have a total trade embargo, that’s not within the realm of possibilities.” Abram added that he believed Mendelevich represented a small number of people.


Rabbi Avi Weiss, national chairman of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, said, “It is outrageous that those who negotiate for Soviet Jewry at cocktail parties can speak at Solidarity Sunday while a Yosef Mendelevich, who spent 11 years in a Soviet prison, is denied that right. What would it take to speak, another 11 years in the Gulag? But Yosef was denied the right because he speaks the full truth, and believes in, as (Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations) Binyamin Netanyahu said Sunday at the rally, ‘pressure, pressure, pressure’ and not compromise, compromise, compromise which has lulled our community into complacency.”

Conference organizers from the Coalition to Free Soviet Jewry told the JTA that time constraints mainly prevented Mendelevich from receiving an official time slot in the scheduled program.

“We had limited time and many people who would have liked to speak,” said Pesky. “We made the judgement about who would be the most appropriate people to speak,” he said.

Pesky said the appropriateness of the potential speakers was evaluated according to the objectives of the rally. “One of the main reasons for the rally is to draw attention to Soviet Jewry,” Pesky said. “This is aided by prominent speakers. We had requests from many Congressmen and others,” he said.


Sharansky, the only former refusenik to address the rally, was chosen to represent former refuseniks in the program, Pesky said. Although some 10 former refuseniks sat on the stage with the dignitaries, including David Goldfarb, Vladimir Magaryk, and Leonid Slepak, none spoke from the podium. Instead, the march organizers introduced the Soviet Jews to reporters and arranged for interviews and media coverage of the plight of relatives left behind in the Soviet Union.

But Pesky said Mendelevich’s political views had nothing to do with his exclusion from the program. “We are an organization that is not afraid to confront different sides of this issue.”

Zeesy Schnur, Coalition executive director, added that the organizers had a tremendous amount of respect for Mendelevich, one of the Leningrad defendants, which alone is an “extraordinary reason for according him the respect he deserves.”

Sunday evening, Mendelevich, sitting at the dinner table in the Riverdale, NY home of Rabbi Weiss, told the JTA why he felt impelled to speak.

Mendelevich said a demand for the release of 11,000 is only a small portion of tens of thousands who want to leave the Soviet Union. “We should ask for free emigration and nothing else,” he said.

Mendelevich advocated government-legislated trade embargoes and sanctions similar to those imposed on South Africa. He urged businesses and activists to emulate their concerns for human rights in South Africa by extending them to the Soviets.

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