The formal atmosphere surrounding the arrival here of Mikhail Gorbachev lightened up as the week progressed and the former Soviet president learned that an Israeli potato had been named after him.
Gorbachev could not help smiling on Tuesday, the second day of his four-day visit, when the Agricultural Research Center at Beit Dagan presented the former Soviet leader with “Mikhail,” a potato it recently cultivated.
Still, Gorbachev has spent most of his time here in a suit and tie, visiting dignitaries and receiving awards from the country’s universities.
On Monday he accepted the prestigious $35,000 Harvey Peace Prize from the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.
Gorbachev also picked up an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba Tuesday. Altogether, the honors and awards on this trip will earn him about $55,000, about what the Israel government spends to feed and shelter eight Soviet immigrant families during their first year in the country.
In his speech at the Technion, Gorbachev spoke about anti-Semitism in the old Soviet Union where it was “officially denied in policy but encouraged in practice.”
He added, “I hope you know how much leeway Jews in Russia received in order to realize their talents after the revolution. Yet in the days of Stalin, especially after World War II, anti-Semitism was introduced into domestic and foreign policy. Even after the death of Stalin, this state of affairs continued, but not in openly repressive forms.”
Looking back at his own tenure as president, Gorbachev said, “Only in the days of perestroika did we finally succeed in putting an end to the signs of anti-Semitism.”
Israel welcomed the former superpower leader as a hero because it was during Gorbachev’s regime that Soviet Jews were finally given the right to emigrate freely.
About 350,000 of them have come to Israel to date. But Gorbachev viewed their exodus with mixed feelings. He saw it as a “loss for our land and society,” he told one reporter.
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.