As co-chairman of Operation Exodus for Los Angeles, a worldwide effort to rescue Soviet Jews, I joined a small group in Moscow earlier this month to try and gain some understanding of the current status of Jews in the Soviet Union.
As we boarded our van for the ride from the Moscow airport to our hotel, I asked the Intourist guide “How is life under perestroika ?” From my two previous visits to the Soviet Union I expected to hear the usual canned public relations response. Instead she exploded, “It’s terrible here. You stand in lines forever, there is nothing to buy anyway, the states are in revolt, and the people everywhere are frustrated and angry. This is an awful place to live!”
In Moscow we spoke with dozens of Jews who were part of that daily mob besieging the Dutch embassy where the Israeli Legation issues exit visas. One after the other they spoke of the harshness of their life--of the menace of increasing anti-Semitism and the specter of a complete breakdown of the Soviet system with the unspeakable terror that such chaos could create. Unfortunately, there is much in Russian history to justify these fears.
Jews are leaving the Soviet Union at the rate of 10,000 per month, the pace is accelerating, and hundreds of thousands more are clamoring to escape while the doors to freedom remain open. Whatever the murky future, present policies allow a relatively free emigration, and Soviet Jews are flocking to Moscow to secure exit visas. They come from all points in that vast country. Some had traveled thousands of miles to join that milling crowd, each with his unique story. Some experienced overt anti-Semitism; some felt the overhanging menace of their chaotic society; others want to live and raise their children in their Jewish homeland; others crave a place of freedom and opportunity. This vast Exodus is creating a moment in the history of the Jewish people comparable to the biblical exodus from Egypt.
Standing on that street in Moscow in the middle of this tense, high energy crowd, sensing the historical significance of what was happening, I felt a stream of varying emotions. Watching those Soviet Jews waving their letters of invitation from the Israeli government, pressing against the gates to reach those Israelis processing the entry visas, literally begging for the right to leave their homes for the unknown. To me this was an overpowering moment.
I felt their anguish on leaving behind whatever parts of their lives that had been rich; I sensed their fear in going to a new land where they must learn the language and where they know conditions of employment, housing and all elements of life will be very difficult. I was filled with pride in Israel’s willingness with open arms to accept these people as family and to generously help them integrate into Israel life. I felt joy and commitment being an American Jew and through Operation Exodus being able to participate in the vast expense of transportation and helping defray a small part of the Israeli government’s cost to absorb what could be 1 million new citizens, and finally, a great thankfulness to be a citizen of the United States with a life of security and opportunity that we all, Jew and Gentile alike, take so much for granted.
RICHARD S. GUNTHER, Co-Chairman
Operation Exodus, Los Angeles