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Iosif Begun and Family Get Warm Welcome in Israel

January 21, 1988
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Longtime refusenik Iosif Begun and his family arrived in Israel shortly after midnight Wednesday morning. They received a tumultuous welcome from hundreds of well-wishers at Ben Gurion International Airport, including Cabinet ministers, Knesset members and other former refuseniks who, like Begun, had waited years for permission to leave the Soviet Union.

“I’m the happiest man in the world,” the 55-year-old electrical engineer from Moscow declared as he stepped from the Romanian airline jet, holding one of his grandchildren in his arms.

Begun and his wife, Inna, flew to Israel via Bucharest, together with his son, Boris; Boris’ wife, Anya; and their children. Begun said he preferred to use that direct route to Israel rather than traveling by rail to Vienna, the route used by most Jews leaving the Soviet Union.

The Vienna stopover is a sore point with Begun and many Israelis, because the majority of Russian Jews transiting there choose to immigrate to countries other than Israel.

Begun, a Soviet Jewry activist and teacher of Hebrew, waited nearly 17 years for his exit visa. During that time, he was arrested and exiled to Siberia three times for teaching Hebrew and Jewish culture to fellow Jews.

Among those on hand to greet the Begun family was Immigration and Absorption Minister Yaacov Tsur, who personally handed the Beguns documents making them official citizens of Israel.

“There are no words, in any language, to express our feelings. We are in our own land.” Inna Begun told reporters in halting Hebrew.

Iosif Begun, however, brought a grim message from the Soviet Union. Addressing a throng in the airport’s VIP lounge, he said, “The future of the Jewish people in Russia is in great danger, for the anti-Semitic movement and those who hate Israel are growing.”

Begun remained in Moscow for several weeks after receiving permission to emigrate, raising speculation that he was reluctant to depart, because it would leave the Soviet Jewish community leaderless. He was, in fact, the last of several prominent refuseniks to leave.

Natan Sharansky, who came to Israel two years ago, after nearly a decade in the Soviet Gulag, was asked at the airport who would replace Begun. He replied that there was no shortage of leaders.

“Jews always have leaders — maybe too many of them,” Sharansky said with his usual wide smile.

The joy here over the arrival of the Begun family was tempered in Soviet Jewry circles by concern over reports of an apparent crackdown on emigration in several Soviet cities.

In Leningrad, Kiev and other Soviet cities, Jewish activists report new, more rigorous insistence by the Soviet authorities that applicants for exit visas must have first-degree relatives in Israel.

This means their applications would be considered only if they have a parent, child or sibling abroad. The rule, promulgated a year ago, has not been vigorously enforced until now, allowing more distant relatives to send the required family reunion affidavits to the applicants for presentation at the Soviet visa office.

Meanwhile, the Begun family’s first stop was to be at Kibbutz Maagan Michael, south of Haifa, where they have a longstanding invitation to settle. A house there has been prepared and furnished for them.

But the Jewish Agency for Israel is providing a small apartment at the Bet Milman immigrant reception center in the Ramat Aviv suburb of Tel Aviv, where the family can live while integrating into Israeli society.

Asked by reporters where he would be going from the airport, Iosif Begun replied, “I don’t know. It depends on what my friends say.”

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