For generations, Jews lived in Russia and then the Soviet Union, suffering overt anti-Semitism, discrimination and physical threats to their lives. This was commonplace under the czars and inherited by the Soviets.
For the vast majority, there were no alternatives but to do their best to eke out a living, always under the threat of a pogrom that could leave many casualties.
While the USSR was quick to recognize Israel in 1948, and “officially” provided equality for Soviet Jews, state sponsored anti-Semitism and discrimination were institutionalized in the Communist party and throughout Soviet society.
Israel’s birth in 1948 gave Soviet Jews hope and inspiration. Israel’s first ambassador to the USSR, Golda Meir, was greeted as a hero of biblical proportion. As much as Israel gave a breath of life among millions of Soviet Jews, the Soviets fought to take the oxygen out of that. Severe legal crackdowns prevented any public expression of Jewish life, religion, culture or language.
Israel’s astounding Six-Day War victory gave Soviet Jews renewed pride. They began to struggle against the Soviets to be able to leave. One couldn’t simply get on a plane; they had to apply to a Soviet state body for permission.
Typically, simply applying to leave would lead to loss of their jobs, being thrown out of school and then arrested as social “parasites” in the state-controlled communist system. Nevertheless, many did apply to leave and suffered the consequences, including being refused permission repeatedly and ostracized as “refuseniks.”
Today, airplane hijackings are associated with Arab terrorists and 9/11, to harm or threaten others. Yet 50 years ago this week, a group of Soviet Jews dreamed a bold plan to hijack an empty plane, not to hurt or terrorize anyone; they just wanted to leave. They felt they had no choice to get out of the USSR and to call awareness to the plight of all Soviet Jews. They also felt that they had nothing to lose because the Soviets robustly used fake criminal charges as the basis for imprisoning anyone who was deemed “anti-Soviet.” Borrowing from the biblical Exodus, these Jews raised the stakes, not by walking out but by figuratively hijacking Pharaoh’s chariots.
On June 15, 1970, the group bought all the seats on a small domestic flight from Leningrad. They made up the cover of going to a wedding: “Operation Wedding.” One of the men, Mark Dymshits, was a former military pilot. They would restrain the pilots, fly to Sweden and eventually go to Israel. They understood the enormity of their plans, the risks and were prepared for it all.
The KGB was also ready. Given its web of civilian informers and professional ruthless agents, they had learned about the plan. Before boarding, the group was arrested and charged with “high treason,” punishable by death. The trial took place that December. Dymshits and another leader, Eduard Kuznetsov, received a death sentence. The other sentences ranged from four to 15 years.
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SOURCE: Charisma News