Former refusenik comes to terms
with Jews who stay put
By Anshel Pfeffer
Two weeks ago, Yosef Begun, a former Prisoner of Zion, sat in the lobby of a resort near Moscow, watching the hundreds of Russian Jewish young people who came to participate in a Jewish cultural event. Some of them were not even born when Begun sat in a Soviet prison because of his activities as a Hebrew teacher.
"When I immigrated to Israel in 1988, we thought this chapter of Jews in Russia was about to come to an end and that everyone would leave," he says. "Now I understand that there are those who will stay here."
His friends, like Prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky, believe that everyone must immigrate to Israel because there is no Jewish future in Russia.
"I fought to come to Israel but it is obvious that this does not suit everyone," says Begun, who is 75.
In the 1980s, Begun was one of the best-known Prisoners of Zion, along with Sharansky, but since coming to Israel he has largely concentrated on education and has slipped out of his focus on Zionism. Even though he lives in Jerusalem, he admits that "90 percent of the time I speak Russian."
An exhibition commemorating the events which four decades ago began the struggle of Jews in the Soviet Union to come to Israel opened yesterday at the Diaspora Museum at Tel Aviv University.
The Zionist awakening in Russia began after the Six-Day War, and was seen by the authorities as part of an organized campaign. But Begun, who was then an electronics engineer at a Soviet military institute in Moscow, had begun searching for his Jewish roots in the early 1960s. A chance meeting with an elderly Jew led him to begin studying Hebrew, and in 1967, after Israel's victory in the war, he began Zionist activism.
In 1971 he asked for permission to leave for Israel, and resigned from his security-related work to focus on studying Hebrew. In 1977 he was arrested for the first time and was tried for "parasitic behavior." He was exiled inside the Soviet Union for two years.
After he returned, he was arrested again, and was exiled for three years. In 1981, he was arrested again, and this time sentenced to seven years in prison and five more in exile.
He served part of that time with Sharansky.
In 1987, as Mikhail Gorbachev championed perestroika, he was released, and in January 1988 he immigrated to Israel with his family.
He has been here 19 years and still describes himself as a proud Zionist, but he also has changed his attitude about the need for all the Jews to immigrate to Israel.
"The Soviets accused me of saying that in the USSR 'cultural genocide' was taking place," he says.
"When the gates opened, I thought everyone was like the prisoners and that they would rush to leave the prison; no one was thinking about developing Jewish culture in Russia. The economy was wrecked, the anti-Semitic organization Pamyat began its activity and we were thinking that there would be pogroms. But in the end, many stayed, and that is natural. There are family considerations, work, and of course also intermarriage."