The swift victory of Israel in the Six-Day War stirred up the whole world. It was then that Soviet Jews, who seemed to have lost their last hope, started an open struggle for the right to repatriation to Israel.
My compatriots, the Georgian Jews, were in the vanguard of this awakening. They organized protest actions, applied for exit visas, appealed to Soviet authorities, sent hundreds of letters and telegrams, but all their efforts were in vain.
In August 1969, exactly 50 years ago, a native of Kutaisi, Shabtai Elashvili gathered the most trusted friends and announced his decision to appeal to the UN Human Rights Committee, the Israeli Prime Minister, and the Israeli ambassador to the UN.
18 Georgian Jews signed a letter that could become their death sentence. All signed their names and addresses, prompting many observers to call their act one of great courage.
In particular, the letter said:
… The time of fear has passed – the hour of action has come. … We demand the UN Human Rights Commission to take immediate steps to obtain in the shortest possible time permission from the USSR government for us to leave. How is it possible at the end of the 20th century to forbid people to live where they want?
Shabtai Elashvili went to Moscow and secretly handed the letter over the Dutch ambassador, who at that time represented Israel’s interests in the USSR. Thus, the first public demand by Soviet Jews for emigration to Israel crossed the Iron Curtain, reached the addressees and produced the effect of an exploding bomb.
The UN Human Rights Committee distributed the letter of 18 Georgian Jews as an official document, as a result of which the letter was translated into many languages and published in major newspapers in the world. People read this daring text in Jewish homes and during protests in support of the right of Soviet Jews to repatriate.
Impressed by this impudent message, the Knesset and the Government of Israel, led by Golda Meir, decided to publicly support the right of Soviet Jews to aliyah. Until that moment, official Israeli authorities had refrained from open actions in the hope of restoring relations with the Soviet Union.
In 1971, eighteen Jewish families achieved their goal and set foot on the Holy Land. After all the ordeals he had faced, Shabtai Elashvili left this world the same year, just months apart.
The 18 Georgian Jews’ Letter caused an intensive campaign on the part of the government of Israel and the Jewish world to allow the emigration of Soviet Jews to Israel.
Do not forget and tell others about the courageous man Shabtay Elashvili and his true friends who shoulder to shoulder followed their leader towards the great goal of reuniting with their people.
Dr. Mikhail Mirilashvili, EAJC President