Jewish heroism: An award in Russia for Yosef Mendelevitch

Ex Prisoner of Zion granted 'Heroism Award' - in Russia. 'Why should it make news here? It adds nothing to the struggle against Netanyahu.'

Sivan Rahav Meir ,

Sivan Rahav meir
Sivan Rahav meir
צילום: עצמי


Here are my thoughts to sum up the filibuster in the Knesset last week. This is a very stormy session with discussions between Right and Left seeming to hit new heights, but a lot of this talk is like the foam on the crest of the waves, it is not the heart of the matter.

For a few consecutive days, the Knesset resembled the TV reality show 'Big Brother', Litzman's fictitious proposal about the qualifications needed to serve as Prime Minister reached the headlines and was discussed on all sides of the political arena. An unimportant law, such as the Police Recommendations Bill became a matter of life and death and wasted much time and energy. And when they are not wasting their time in the filibuster, responsible adults hold so-called serious discussions about the difference between a cigar cutter and a guillotine (referring to the presents of cigars of which Netanyahu is accused and a protestor bringing a guillotine to a demonstration against corruption, but actually aimed at the prime minister, ed.).

However, we should invest the time and make a serious effort to try and distinguish between the background noises, verbal exchanges, posts against the media coming from the Left and Right and focus on the core, the essence of what this government is actually doing and not on what it says.

Firstly, even the Opposition praises Netanyahu's foreign policy achievements. If only the statesman Netanyahu we know from his travels overseas were the same person as the one we know here at home. If only the impressive orator on the podium at the UN were the same as the one who ranted at Kfar Hamacabiah.

Secondly, I believe that the present government has at least two ministers, both female, who excel in deeds and not just in tweets.

Both Miri Regev and Ayelet Shaked are quietly engineering a thorough revolution at their respective ministries. Regev is making changes in the way grants for culture are distributed to outlying areas and ensuring funding for sectors that had not previously enjoyed a piece of the pie (even though the Minister of Culture occasionally lets fly with a tirade directed against Haneen Zoabi). Shaked is introducing important changes to improve efficiency in the judicial system as well as broadening the composition of the judges serving in the courts so that different worldviews are represented. She is succeeding where previous Ministers of Justice have failed, notwithstanding their ambitious plans.

Praise should be given when it is due, especially at the end of a week in which the Defense Minister called for the death penalty for terrorists, knowing full well that he has no chance of implementing his suggestion and a week in which a MK stands on the podium and talks for nine hours continuously just to waste time.


Wikipedia defines incitement as "an attempt to convince a person or a group of people to perform a criminal act, usually a crime. Israel's Penal Law defines an inciter as "a person who publicizes a call for committing an act of violence or terror, or words of praise and support for an act of violence or terror." What is the connection between these two definitions which involve actual pushing to commit violence and how incitement is commonly used in our day to day conversations? Why does every negative comment immediately become a criminal act? How does every crude drawing on a piece of cardboard and held up at a demonstration, or on an ordinary sheet of paper or even a simple whatsapp message succeed in changing the news of the day and cause condemnation on all sides? And why do a few unpleasant words about the President lead to the dismissal of a radio presenter?

Regarding all these 'outrages' that have been the hot news items on social media recently – the guillotine, Hitler's mustache, a hangman's noose, a coffin, SS uniform, a kafiyyeh, and a jellabiya – I would like to add my personal reaction to all of them, using a very common expression on the new media – uggghhhh!


Who heard about the prize awarded to Yosef Mendelevitch, the former Prisoner of Zion? My guess is that most people didn't. His friends contacted me and asked why the media in Israel did not report on this historic event. So, for those of you who want to know, Mendelevitch was recently given the "Heroism Award" at a ceremony at the Kremlin attended by 6000 guests. What did he do to deserve this prestigious award at the official residence of the Russian President, just steps away from the Red Square? He opposed the Soviet regime and he struggled to retain his Judaism during his incarceration in labor camps and prison.

During the ceremony, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia awarded prizes to residents of that country for achievements in cinema, literature, music etc. However, the heroism awardee came all the way from Israel. Mendelevitch traveled especially to Moscow, accompanied by family and friends who had helped him in his long struggle to permit immigration from behind the Iron Curtain.

I spoke to his son Moshe: "As a child I was always told that my father would never be allowed to return to Russia, and suddenly he returned – as an awardee. This was a spiritual victory, not a military one, a victory for our values."

Mendelevitch was active in the Jewish-Zionist underground in the Soviet Union. In 1970, he took part in the Dymshits–Kuznetsov hijacking affair, an attempt to hijack a small plane from an airport near St. Petersburg as part of the struggle for the free immigration of Soviet Jewry. He was accused of treason, a crime punishable by death, which was commuted to a 'mere' eleven-year prison sentence, during which he went on hunger strike for 58 days. In 1981, he was released with other Prisoners of Zion and made Aliya.

The Biton Committee which recommended making the study of Mizrahi and Sephardi culture mandatory in Israeli schools is well known and is an important issue. However, the story of the struggle of Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel has also been swept under the carpet of the national narrative.

The following is an excerpt from Mendelevitch's acceptance speech at the Kremlin. "Who am I that I should receive an award for Jewish heroism? Some of the activists paid with their lives in the KGB dungeons. I am standing here to represent them. For me, heroism is not only our struggle to open the gates and let our people go. Such heroism can be temporary and fleeting. True heroism is to remain a Jew under any circumstances, even in prison, and even after release from prison and to be vigilant to retain your identity. After I made Aliya, the Lubavitcher Rebbe commanded me to continue being a hero and to serve as an example for the Jews in Russia and in the free world and to be involved in Aliya and education.

It is especially meaningful for me to be here in Russia at this time of the year because we were sentenced to prison during Hannukah. I remember that, after several years in prison, I lit a Menorah made out of slices of bread and wicks made from flax. When we make the bracha at candle lighting "in those days, at this time" we are referring to this time, in our days."

After his return to Israel, I contacted Mendelevich who told me: "I am upset that I was not awarded the prize here in Israel, but in a foreign country. Prisoners of Zion are not given any recognition or preferential treatment here in Israel, except for a Prisoner of Zion badge. Yet in Russia, specifically during Hanukkah, we celebrated the victory of the forces of light over the forces of darkness, in the very hall where the Communist Party politburo used to meet."

"I guess I should have known that this would not be considered a news item here in Israel. Why would I even think it is newsworthy, after all it does not contribute anything to the struggle to bring down Netanyahu!"