From Russia, with love


Jill Cooper Lefferman doesn’t like surprises, and especially not at her daughter Maia’s bat mitzvah, where she planned every detail, from Maia’s reading from the 100-year-old Cooper family Torah to the handcrafted, color-coordinated, Maia-inspired, donatable centerpieces.

But just after Jill and her husband, Matthew, made their speeches to Maia at the Feb. 15 event at Temple Beth Am, Matthew announced that he had a surprise for Jill. A video began to play, and Jill could not let her guard down until she heard the words, “Jill, meet Mayya Klich.”

Mayya had been Jill’s Russian refusenik bat mitzvah twin in 1983. The experience of sharing her bat mitzvah with a girl across the ocean, who didn’t have the freedom to celebrate and whose family was being refused the right to leave Russia (hence the term “refusenik”), so impacted Jill that she named her own daughter Maia, in honor of Mayya Klich.

Last summer, Matthew, a physician, secretly hired a private investigator to track down Mayya. Working off of a Soviet-era address in Ukraine, the investigator eventually found her in Maryland just two weeks before the bat mitzvah. After a reality show-worthy reveal at the bat mitzvah, Jill and Mayya locked into an embrace. The bat mitzvah girl soon joined in, and tears flowed freely among the 225 guests.

“It was too much to process. There was literally too much coming at me,” Jill said. “Mayya Klich has been a part of me for so long but was always this fairy tale. That she actually exists is unbelievable to me.”

“I thought I might have [a] heart attack,” said Mayya, who sat through services incognito (she was Michelle, a nurse who worked with Matthew, if anyone asked). Mayya quietly cried through Maia’s speech as the sixth-grader at Pressman Academy, invoked her namesake and told the story of her mother’s Russian bat mitzvah twin. Mayya said her parents have been bursting into tears since Matthew contacted them a few weeks ago.

In 1988, Mayya, along with her parents, sister and — a year later — two grandmothers, received permission to leave Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine. They moved to Maryland, and Mayya now has a master’s degree in education, teaches ESL (English as a Second Language) at a public high school and is also a home health aide.

For her bat mitzvah, Jill had been paired with Mayya through a program orchestrated by her synagogue, Temple Beth El in Phoenix. Jill spoke about Mayya in her bat mitzvah speech, had a cake for her, and had all her guests write postcards to Mayya. Jill also wrote many letters to Mayya, carefully following guidelines to avoid phrases and topics that wouldn’t make it past Soviet censors. Jill’s older sister, Jenna, had been twinned with Mayya’s older sister, Natasha, two years before.

“You know how so much of Jewish education focuses on the Holocaust?” Jill said. “All we learned about was Soviet Jewry. It was so central to my education.” She remembers greeting released refuseniks at the airport, and that her rabbi gave his son a Russian middle name.

Jill said she was always aware that, with four sets of Russian great-grandparents, her family easily could have been in the Kliches’ place. 

As central as Mayya was to Jill’s adolescence, Mayya had no idea Jill existed until Matthew contacted her. Mayya’s father, David, said his family only learned about twinning programs when they came to America but were not given many details.

Mayya, who was 15 when they left Ukraine, said she remembers knowing that she got a lot of mail from America, but she was never able to read it. She remembers the police coming to her house with stacks of foreign mail and waving it around, saying the family couldn’t see it.

David, who was a dentist in Ukraine and is now retired from his work as a dental technician in Maryland, said he doesn’t remember the police confiscating any mail. But he does remember receiving many letters — most of which he could not understand — from Jews around the world who wrote as an expression of solidarity with Soviet Jewish refuseniks. The postman, he said, was so leery of mail coming from capitalist countries he would drop it at the door and run away. At one point, David said, he got subpoenaed by the KGB to explain his foreign mail — he was getting as many as 10 letters a day. 

The Klich family applied repeatedly for exit visas to the United States or Israel starting in 1975, and each application and refusal increased the scrutiny on the family. David was called in by the KGB several times and was humiliated in a large meeting of colleagues where he was told he was a bad communist.

When government officials asked his wife, Bella Klich, a psychologist who worked in a Russian bookstore when she came to America, why she wanted to leave the Soviet Union, she said she wanted to give her children a Jewish education, to have them go to school and not be called “zhid” (derogatory for “Jew”). 

As a Jew, Mayya knew she would not be admitted to any college without a hefty bribe, which her family could not afford.

There were no operating synagogues in Khmelnytskyi, a city named for the Ukrainian captain who fomented a massacre of tens of thousands of Jews starting in 1648. Teaching Hebrew was illegal, and engaging in Torah study or prayer could land you in jail. 

Mayya said her grandmother, her father’s mother, was the keeper of tradition. She spoke Yiddish better than Russian, lit Shabbat candles, never drove on Shabbat, hosted a Pesach seder and baked her own matzah. But she had to do all of this with the curtains drawn and the doors closed, lest the KGB discover that she was practicing.

But without a Jewish education, Mayya and her parents were only sparsely aware of what any of it meant. David has vague memories of a small, dark room where people gathered to say Kaddish. He still has his father’s old tallit and kippah.

Mayya said she didn’t know what a Torah was, and she finally understood her grandmother’s seders after she saw “The Ten Commandments” with Charlton Heston in America years later.

In 1988, the Klich family was granted a visa and they made their way to Silver Spring, Md., where David’s brother and some other family members were already living. They now live in Germantown, near Rockville.

Mayya got a scholarship to the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, where she learned Hebrew and went with her class to Israel in 1992. Her grandmother never missed a Shabbat at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville till she was well into her 90s. She died last year at the age of 103.

Mayya is still involved at the day school and says her newfound connection to the Leffermans, and the knowledge that Jewish kinship extends so strongly over time and continents, has inspired her to recommit to Jewish practice.

“I feel like [I] have another sister,” Mayya said.

Mayya spent the days after the bat mitzvah touring Los Angeles — Hollywood, Disneyland, Universal Studios — and getting to know the Leffermans. 

Mayya also brought some presents for Maia: a matryoshka nesting doll from her collection, and a gold hamsa necklace, the first Jewish item she bought for herself when she came to this country, with money she earned working at CVS and Pizza Hut.

Maia hasn’t taken off the necklace since the bat mitzvah.

As it turns out, just a few months before her bat mitzvah, Maia had suggested the family search for Mayya.

“I have a heritage trip to Russia somewhere in me that I hope to do someday, and I always figured I would find Mayya Klich then,” Jill said. “But, in truth, I never really wanted to know how her life turned out because I was kind of sure it wasn’t good.”

As the video began to roll at Maia’s bat mitzvah and Jill realized it was about Mayya, she turned to Matthew and asked in a whisper, “Does it end happy?” She was sure the family’s plight ended tragically, and that her generous husband had set up a fund in memory of the Klich family. When Mayya appeared on screen, Jill realized she was sitting right next to her.

As Jill got to know Mayya over the next few days, she found a woman who was not only alive and well, but also confident, caring, accomplished and Jewishly engaged. 

The connection that had been a cherished myth by one twin and was unknown to the other for so many years was slowly turning into tangible reality.

Mayya never had a bat mitzvah, and Jill encouraged her to do so, saying her family would come to Maryland to celebrate. And, she told Mayya, “We’ll bring the Cooper family Torah.”

Life of an IDF ‘Refusenik’


Life in Israeli military prison, it turns out, is a lot like life in the Israeli military.

“We get up at 5 every morning and we have a morning roll call,” says 19-year-old Natan Blanc, a chronic prisoner at Prison Six, along the northern coast of Israel. He has spent almost two months at the military prison since refusing to join the army on Nov. 19, partly because of his horror at Israel’s recent actions against Gaza during Operation Pillar of Defense.

“We are yelled at a lot, and we always have to notice that our shirt is tucked in, our hat is on, we have to be shaved, etc.,” Blanc wrote in an e-mail. “There is a constant threat that we will get more days in prison if we don’t behave ourselves.”

Conscientious objectors who refuse to join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for political reasons are not allowed to be interviewed by the press while incarcerated, says an IDF spokeswoman who refuses to give her name. But Blanc — the latest in a long line of “refuseniks” who have chosen to protest the IDF’s military actions by dodging mandatory service — does what he can to answer this reporter’s questions in his few hours of freedom between stints at Prison Six.

Blanc is caught in a strange loophole in Israeli law: Each time he reports to the IDF recruitment center, he declares his refusal to serve. And each time he refuses to serve, he is arrested and sentenced to roughly 10 to 20 days in military prison. Yet each time he is released, he is summoned back to the IDF recruitment center within a couple of days, where he redeclares his refusal — and so the cycle spins.

“The government in Israel isn’t even trying to end this conflict [with Palestine],” Blanc explains upon arriving to the IDF recruitment center — for the fourth time — on a drizzly Sunday in January. “They’re not willing to give up on any land or anything to get peace, and I don’t think we will get peace without compromises.” Specks of hazel add warmth to his ice-blue eyes.

While the 19-year-old is receiving blog shout-outs from activists around the world, an avalanche of supportive messages in his inbox and dozens of protesters demonstrating in his honor on the hilltop overlooking Prison Six, he says that many fellow countrymen remain hostile to his decision. “There is a lot of anger in Israel against people who don’t ‘share the load’ and ‘contribute to the military effort,’ ” Blanc explains.

As he presents his draft notice to the IDF guards outside the recruitment center, Blanc appears shy, but not nervous — he’s done this before. 

The center is situated on a desolate army base about one half-hour east of Tel Aviv — a harsh plot of sparse trees, broken-down gates and dirt inroads, with the constant buzz of an army loudspeaker giving orders to Israeli youth in Hebrew. Reporting for duty here is something of a rite of passage for young citizens, who today march past Blanc and through the front gates with their papers in hand and their gaze toward the floor.

To passers-by, Blanc looks just like any other army kid: He’s on the brink of his 20s, with a close-shaven head and a backpack twice as thick as his torso.

But this teenager’s bag is packed for prison, not the territories. 

His father, David Blanc, a math professor at the University of Haifa and the mirror image of his son a few decades on, has driven Natan to the recruitment center from their home in Haifa this morning. The first drop-off in November was emotional, David says, but his son’s big statement has become somewhat of a routine. Two months in, the repeated gesture feels a little anticlimactic — 19-year-old Blanc says he’ll be waiting inside the center for hours before he gets taken into custody and hauled back to Prison Six — but at the same time rhythmic, and resolved. Every couple of weeks, when the young protester is released from jail and told to re-report for duty, he gets another opportunity to look IDF officials in the eye and tell them he doesn’t agree with their aggressive handling of the Palestinian territories.

Blanc wrote in his initial public statement that “after four years full of terror … it is clear that the Netanyahu government, like that of his predecessor Olmert, is not interested in finding a solution to the existing situation, but rather in preserving it.”

By sticking to this stance, the activist has signed himself up for the IDF’s infamously long and messy court cycle for conscientious objectors — one that has been criticized by rights organizations such as Israel’s New Profile as arbitrary, unpredictable and probably illegal under international law.

“The IDF’s policy was always to try somehow to find a solution, because there were very few conscientious objectors,” says Mordechai Bar-On, former chief education officer for the IDF. “They were jailed, and released, and jailed again, and then they somehow let them go.”

Blanc, too, has observed that typically, “The cycle of refusing, being sentenced and being assigned to another unit goes on for a few months. Then one of two things happens. Either the army gets tired of it and releases [the protesters] from service, or they get tired of it, and they fake a medical issue or a mental issue in order to get out of the army.”

There are many well-known ways to avoid serving in the IDF that do not end in prison time. Orthodox Jews, up to this point, have been excused from military service; many non-Orthodox Jews have claimed religious conflicts as well. Other draftees who don’t wish to bear arms are allowed to work IDF desk jobs instead. And although the IDF won’t reveal the methodology used by its Conscientious Objection Committee, the committee does indeed dismiss some proclaimed “pacifists” from duty — but usually only the ones who define themselves as vague peacenik types without any specific objections to the IDF’s actions, according to Israel Ministry of Justice documents published by the U.N. Refugee Agency.

One of the most popular excuses, though, is mental instability. Convincingly fake a psychological disorder, many young folks say, and you’re almost guaranteed an out.

In fact, that’s what Moriel Rothman, another conscientious objector who was released days before Blanc was admitted, resorted to after almost one month in jail and two rounds of this absurd dance with the IDF’s court system.

For Blanc, that’s not the point.

“It’s very difficult for me to refuse to follow the law,” the 19-year-old admits over the phone on his one day at home between prison spells. “But there’s something basically wrong about being in this kind of war.” He says he will not lie to army officials for a pass out of prison.

According to Tel Aviv University history professor Gadi Algazi (who was himself sentenced to one year behind bars for the same act of protest), anywhere from 600 to 1,000 refuseniks have shunned their IDF duty since the movement began in the early 1970s. Blanc is the only refusenik currently serving time at Prison Six for turning down IDF service in all capacities due to his political beliefs.

Blanc, for his part, first started considering the alternative path during Israel’s bloody Operation Cast Lead in 2008. He remembers sitting in front of the TV, watching the death toll in Gaza tick upward in real time. “The numbers of the people who died kept rising in the news,” he says. “And every time they went up, my friend said, ‘Look, now it’s more.’ He kept saying, ‘Very good, that’s the way.’ And I thought to myself, ‘Am I going to become like this?’ ”

His father, who describes himself as politically liberal, says he watched Natan “suddenly see the way they just start wars for no reason. In the books is one thing, but when you see it happening, it can change you.”

Beneath an article about Blanc published by Israeli newspaper Haaretz, some online commenters have admired his bravery. But others call him nothing more than a draft dodger, and one writes: “If this traitor refuses to fight Arab occupation of Jewish land then he should rot in jail … .”

Blanc says he will gladly do so to further his cause.

“As representatives of the people,” he wrote in his public statement, “members of the cabinet have no duty to present their vision for the futures of the country, and they can continue with this bloody cycle, with no end in sight. But we, as citizens and human beings, have a moral duty to refuse to participate in this cynical game.”

Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich: Soviet gulag survivor’s courage


It was standing room only at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, as a crowd packed the Hertz Theatre to hear Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich, the celebrated Russian refusenik and author, stress the importance of standing up for one’s principles. 

The former prisoner of conscience, now 65, discussed the turbulent years in the former Soviet Union leading up to an attempt to hijack a Soviet plane to Sweden and his eventual 12-year imprisonment in a Soviet gulag. The Riga, Latvia-born Mendelevich, who had a nonreligious upbringing and became an Orthodox rabbi after his release, is touring following the English-language publication of his biography “Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage, and Survival” (Gefen Publishing House). 

The Oct. 28 evening discussion, followed by a Q-and-A session and book signing, likely will not be Mendelevich’s final visit to Los Angeles or to the Museum of Tolerance. In addition to helping to launch the West Coast leg of the “Unbroken Spirit” book tour, the museum is hoping to assemble an exhibition on the oppression of Soviet Jews that would prominently feature Mendelevich, according to the museum’s director, Liebe Geft. 

Museum officials and volunteers have a personal connection to Mendelevich and his story. While living in Israel in the 1970s, Geft helped Mendelevich’s sister petition for her brother’s release and bring attention to the plight of Soviet Jews, even meeting with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and doing a presentation for then-CIA Director George H. W. Bush. 

At that time, in Los Angeles, another future Museum of Tolerance volunteer, Myrtle Sitowitz, was among the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry. This group of housewives sent countless letters to the Soviet Union and, on one occasion, staged a silent protest at a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet.

“We were not getting a good name for ourselves,” said Sitowitz, “but when you fight for something with a purpose, you’re not going to get a good name.”

Geft called Mendelevich “a hero of the Jewish people and of freedom-loving people the world over.” The rabbi, who now lives in Israel and teaches at the Machon Meir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, said he had far more practical motives. 

 “My reason for publishing the book was to help all Jews, (including) new generations, to prevent assimilation, to teach them Jewish values,” Mendelevich told the gathering. “Everything needs sacrifice. If you buy the book, use it as a weapon to continue the fight.”

Fight, Mendelevich did and has done for most of his adult life.

“Unbroken Spirit” chronicles Mendelevich’s work with the Jewish underground (he edited a newsletter on Jewish issues). In the late 1960s, as anti-Israel sentiment increased in Russia, Mendelevich and his fellow dissidents began to seek out ways both to leave the country and to call attention to the plight of Soviet Jews. Along with former Soviet military pilot Mark Dymshits and several others — including non-Jews — Mendelevich hit upon the idea of taking a 12-seat civilian plane, diverting it to Sweden, holding a press conference and then ultimately returning the plane to the Soviet Union … with a full tank of gas, no less.

“We figured we certainly would be arrested, but it was the price to publicize our struggle,” said Mendelevich. “We were willing to pay the price, and we understood that we could be killed during this attempt. But if there is only even a 1 percent chance to succeed, I’m ready for that 1 percent. There was no life for me anymore in Soviet Russia.”

The group was arrested at the airport. At their 1970 trial, Dymshits received a death penalty sentence while Mendelevich received two 15-year sentences plus an additional seven years “for my Jewish activities.” The sentences were later reduced on appeal to a total of 12 years for Mendelevich and 15 for Dymshits. By the time Mendelevich got to his first labor camp, the restrictions on emigration from the Soviet Union had already begun to loosen. In 1971, 12,000 Soviet Jews were able to leave, followed by 30,000 the following year. 

“It was a real victory,” Mendelevich said. “Somehow it is ironical that the winner is being arrested, but I told myself that I felt comfortable in a prison and I am ready to serve as much as needed. Thanks to me being seated in prison, other people got freedom.”

The fight did not end there. Mendelevich talked about having privileges revoked for his refusal to remove his kippah or to work on Shabbat. For the former offense, Mendelevich lost his annual visit with his father — himself an agitator who demonstrated against Nazi anti-Semitism. Toward the end of his imprisonment, Mendelevich endured a 50-day hunger strike over the right to study Torah. 

When they finally released him, the Soviets promptly exiled Mendelevich, who immediately thanked God for the miracle of his deliverance. Rather than being forced to leave his “motherland,” Mendelevich saw his release as an opportunity to relocate to his true motherland — Israel.

“I don’t have a strong will. I am a normal man.” Mendelevich said, insisting that his principles rather than personal attributes gave him strength. “It was our common struggle, not specifically for Jews in America or people in the Soviet Union. Nothing can withstand our good will to bring freedom to the people. Through struggling for all Jewish rights, we brought freedom to other nations.

“So I suggest to everybody, including [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, not to start with us. We have a strong will.”

Defending Identity


Natan Sharansky’s previous book, “The Case for Democracy,” changed the world. It inspired a generation of U.S. policymakers and influenced President GeorgeW. Bush in his decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein.

So when Sharansky’s second book, “Defending Identity,” came out this month, I thought I’d better read it, quick.

I did last Saturday, so that by Sunday, I could sit down with Sharansky and ask him about it.

I met Sharansky at his hotel on the Westside. The former deputy prime minister of Israel, who is now director of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, had just arrived from Israel and was napping when I knocked on his door. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes, grabbed my hand and pulled me inside. Sharansky is half my height and twice as commanding, a pierogi body with basset hound eyes.

A mutual friend offers to call down for coffee.

“Yes,” Sharansky says, “a cappuccino.”

That a man who spent nine years in a Soviet gulag might one day find himself in a sumptuous hotel room, specifying a foamy hot coffee drink, vindicates, if not God’s eternal justice, then at least Her dark sense of humor. And Sharansky’s. He takes a moment to tell how he once excused himself from wearing a tie to meet then-President Bill Clinton.

“I told him, Mr. President, in Israel we have a law. Anyone who spends nine years in the Soviet gulag doesn’t have to wear a tie. And he said, ‘That makes sense.’

“So, later, Putin says to me, ‘Why no tie? Is that a protest?’ And I say, ‘No. First, in Israel we have a law that anyone who spends nine years in the Soviet gulag doesn’t have to wear a tie. And besides that, the president of the United States said it was OK.'”

Sharansky is awake now, and it’s time to talk identity.

In “Defending Identity,” Sharansky argues against the idea, popular among some of the intelligentsia and on many college campuses, that a strong sense of identity among social groups is the source of friction and war. As Sharansky explains “post-identity” thinking: “Identity causes war; war is evil; therefore, identity is evil.”

Sharansky’s book is an extended argument against that premise. Although identity can be “used destructively,” he writes, it is also a force for good.

Strong identities, Sharansky argues, “are as valuable to a well-functioning society as they are to secure and committed well-functioning individuals. Just as the advance of democracy is critical to securing international peace and stability, so, too, is cultivating strong identities.”

Sharansky co-authored the book with Shira Wolosky Weiss. But the source of its deepest insights are drawn from Sharansky’s own life.

“I have been extremely lucky — twice lucky in fact,” Sharansky writes. “I was deprived of both identity and freedom, and then I discovered them both simultaneously.”

The first third of Sharansky’s life was spent as a loyal Soviet citizen in a state that had outlawed and crushed expressions of cultural and religious identity. “The only thing Jewish in my life,” he writes, “was anti-Semitism.”

The Six-Day War awakened Sharansky, as it did so many others, to his Jewish identity. “I started realizing I was part of a unique history … that carried a unique message of community, liberty and hope.”

In 1978, five years after Sharansky applied for a visa to immigrate to Israel, the promising mathematician was arrested by the Soviets, tried for treason and spying and sent to the gulag. He spent 16 months in prison and nine years in a forced labor camp in Siberia. Throughout this ordeal, Sharansky became both leader and symbol of the Jewish immigration movement and the Soviet dissident movement.

A massive international protest on behalf of all Soviet dissidents led to Sharansky’s release in 1986. Upon his release, he flew to Israel, reunited with his wife, Avital, and has lived the third part of his life as an activist, writer and politician.

It was, Sharansky writes, his deep sense of identity that enabled him to fight the Soviet empire.

“I discovered that only by embracing who I am … could I also stand with others,” he writes. “When Jews abandon identity in pursuit of universal freedom, they end up with neither. Yet when they embrace identity in the name of freedom, as Soviet Jews did in the 1970s, they end up securing both.”

While Sharansky’s biography makes his case especially compelling, others have made the same point. Consider the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, in which all the people spoke the same language and therefore couldn’t see their own sinfulness. Judaism has long held to the now-subversive belief that difference needn’t be divisive. Most recently, the chief rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks, in “The Dignity of Difference,” wrote that “universalism can also be deeply threatening.”

Where Sharansky goes further is in alloying identity with democracy. When I point out to him that Muslim extremists don’t suffer from a lack of identity, he leaps forward in his chair.

“Exactly!” he says. “Their identity is not bad; what is bad is their lack of devotion to democracy.”

In that sense, this book on identity follows naturally Sharansky’s now-classic one on democracy.

“Identity, if it is not connected to democracy, it becomes fundamentalist, totalitarian,” he says. “But freedom and democracy without identity means freedom becomes decadent, powerless, meaningless, without any commitment. Exactly what John Lennon said. Let’s have a world in which there would be nothing to fight for. And then a small group, with a strong identity and without any obligations to democracy, can destroy this wonderful world of freedom.”

I am finding myself nodding as one of my heroes — Sharansky — trashes another — John Lennon. But if Lennon sang — with a bit of irony — about utopia, Sharansky is explaining the real world.

“The free world is in a big, big danger,” he says, “because we are in a conflict with fundamentalists, and what they are saying is they have something to fight for, and we don’t.”

Refuseniks in the Ranks


The “officers’ letter” came out on Jan. 25 in Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s largest newspaper — 52 reserve army officers declared that they would not serve in the West Bank or Gaza for moral and political reasons.

They detailed acts of brutality — refusing to allow pregnant woman to pass through barricades to go to hospitals, blowing up houses of civilians, shooting at civilians, including children, who posed no threat to their lives. Beyond the individual incidents of brutality, the officers argued that the occupation was inherently brutal and unjust, and catastrophic not only to Palestinians, but to Israelis and their country.

The army derided the “refusenik” officers as “marginal.” But within 10 days, the number of soldiers signing the letter more than tripled.

Meanwhile, the army launched a counteroffensive, pledging to remove all officers who signed the letter from their command. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Shaul Mofaz raised the suspicion that the letter was organized and financed by left-wing political groups, adding that if this was true, the letter would amount to “incitement to rebellion.”

Yaniv Itzkovich and David Zonshein, two reserve soldiers who are refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, were suspended by the Israeli army after organizing the advertising campaign.

A group of anti-refusenik officers, calling themselves “Privilege to Serve,” got up 500 signatures in favor of service in the territories, regardless of one’s political opinion, in a couple of days.

The refusenik movement is definitely a minority phenomenon among Israel’s reserve soldiers. But it is not “marginal” as the army would have it. Beyond the 170 or so officers who have signed the letter, another nearly 400 consulted with Yesh Gvul (There Is a Limit), Israel’s veteran refusenik movement, about their intention to refuse to serve in the territories, said Yesh Gvul spokesman Peretz Kidron.

Since the intifada began, 46 soldiers have gone to jail rather than serve — either in the territories or in the army altogether, said Sergey Sandler, a pacifist of the anti-military group New Profile, who served two month-long jail terms rather than join the army.

Of some 20 reserve soldiers who’ve served in the territories who were interviewed at Tel Aviv University, opposition to the refuseniks ran about 2-1. “With all my misgivings, the next time I get called to serve in the territories, I’ll go. Even though I disagree with the government’s policy — it’s not leading anywhere — this is still a democracy, and sometimes I have to do things that aren’t to my liking. I don’t like paying taxes either, but I pay them,” said “A.”

But “B,” who served near Bethlehem last year, said he isn’t sure if he’ll answer the call next time. While he didn’t witness the beatings and needless shootings noted in the Yediot article, he said the “occupation is inherently brutal,” telling of how his unit made daily life difficult for a Palestinian farmer because his orchard was near the handful of settlers’ mobile homes “B.”‘s platoon was sent to guard. “I have a moral problem with risking my life for something that I not only don’t believe in, but which I am morally opposed to,” he said.

A number of soldiers — it’s impossible to gauge exactly how many — engage in “gray” refusal to serve in the territories. They get medical deferments, or mental-health deferments, or arrange to be out of the country at the time of their call-up, when the real reason behind their deferment is determination not to serve in the West Bank or Gaza.

“I got out of going to Gaza last June by going to the doctor, telling him I had a heart problem, and in five minutes he gave me a deferment,” says “C.” Now he is trying to get out of the army altogether — again for bogus health reasons. The real reason, he says, is “I don’t want to shoot anybody, I don’t want to beat anybody, and I don’t want to oppress anybody.”

“But officers are given their stripes to make sure that their soldiers act the way they’re supposed to act. If they see acts of brutality being committed, they’re supposed to stop them, and if they don’t, they’re to blame,” said “D,” commander of an elite platoon.

Nearly every soldier who opposed the refuseniks said they knew of no soldiers in their unit who ducked service in the territories.

Conversely, nearly every soldier who identified with the refuseniks said they knew other, like-minded soldiers in their platoon.

Dr. Reuven Gal, former chief army psychologist, now director of the Carmel Institute for Social Studies, says the refusenik movement is bound to grow. “Without any question, there will be more refusniks, more letters, more protests until you see 250,000 people in Kikar Rabin,” he said.

Many reservists have grown dispirited because the war is dragging on; it is directed mainly against civilians, with the destruction of houses and killing of civilians being key elements of the fight; and because there is no move for a political solution to the conflict.

Now comes the refusenik movement to give dramatic expression and direction to that discontent, and Gal believes it is going to force the government towards ending the war. Every interminable Israeli war — from the War of Attrition with Egypt, to the first intifada, to the Lebanon War — led to extreme public discontent, which bore protest movements, which led to peace agreements. “This story has a foregone conclusion,” he said.

It began with 52 army reserve officers who said “no.”

Lighten Up


With the demise of the former Soviet Union and the fall of communism in the early ’90s, the story of Soviet Jewry’s battle for survival appears to be ancient history. Yet one of the truly remarkable books of our time is the autobiography of one of the famous refuseniks, Yosef Mendelevitch, who struggled valiantly for his right to be Jewish in Communist Russia. Mendelevitch titled his autobiography "Mevzah Hatunah," which translates from Hebrew as "Operation Wedding."

Mendelevitch, together with a group of refusenik friends, tried to escape from the USSR in the early ’70s on a plane they had hoped to fly to Israel. But the KGB uncovered their plan, and they were arrested. At the trial they said that they were planning to go to a wedding. That story served as the basis for the book’s title.

Mendelevitch records how, during his prison sentence, he was often sent to solitary confinement in a 3-foot by 5-foot room with no heat or blanket, with a light that never turned off and a slop pail that was only emptied every 10 days. One stint in solitary lasted 90 days, but he sneaked in a Bible. He was caught reading his Bible a few days later, and the interrogator offered him the following deal: "If you give up the Bible, I will reduce your solitary confinement by 30 days. But if you keep it, I will add 30 days." He answered, "With my Bible there is no solitary confinement; without it, solitary confinement is unbearable."

This very thought is found in this week’s Torah portion. At the very start of the reading, the Torah records the commandment about which oil should be used for the lighting of the menorah in the tabernacle. After telling us that pure olive oil was needed, the Torah states that it was used "to lift the perpetual light." This expression is most unusual, for we would have expected the word to be "to kindle." The rabbis in the Talmud (Yoma 45b) suggest that "to lift" teaches us that the fire for the menorah came from an already existing fire that was continually burning. The Talmud remarks, "A fire about which continually has been stated: It is the one with which they light the lamps of the menorah … from the fire which is on the altar." It was, if you will, lifted from that source and transferred to the menorah, in order to ignite the flames of the candelabrum.

In this piece of ritual information lies a great insight that has profound moral value. Light, in all literature, is a metaphor for gladness, which uplifts the heart of man. Indeed, in all universal languages, every form of fulfillment is compared to light. What the Torah teaches us via this law of the menorah’s lighting is that the source of our happiness is crucial. If there is to be light-happiness in our lives, then it must come from a source of holiness. When this occurs and one’s light-happiness is grounded in the correct source, that person then is "uplifted," and the fire burns eternally.

Mendelevitch found his source of light-happiness in the Bible, and it illuminated the darkness of his prison cell. Our challenge is to find our holy source of light and illuminate our lives accordingly.

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