To the English courtroom, he was Victor Ben-Ari. To the judge, the charge was a simple case of obstruction. To the audience, he be another foreigner making a nuisance of himself.
The pedestrians of the Bayswater Road knew better. They had seen a small mustachioed klbbutznik starve himself for over a week near the Soviet Embassy in support of his brother, who was in enforced exile in Russia simply because he wanted to emigrate.
His obstruction, he explained to passers-by, was a Succa built to celebrate the Festival of Succot. The police, unappreciative of the symbolism of the occasion, removed the Succa, but not before it had its aim: nationwide publicity for his brother’s plight.
Victor Ben-Ari, who is 24, has been living in Israel with his mother since the end of 1971. At that time, Victor Tsitlionok. Behind in Moscow he left his brother, Boris, aged 33, one of the early refuseniks. The brothers had become caught up in the wave of Jewish national feeling after the Six-Day. “We began to ask: what is Israel? What does it mean to be a Jew? What is Jewish culture, Jewish education? All of this was completely unknown to us “, Victor explained to me.
The Leningrad trial in December 1970 “forced our hand” and they asked for invitations for Israel. Victor and his mother were allowed to emigrate. Boris was refused on of being in possession of classified information. He was a tool-maker.
In Moscow he joined a group of younger activists which included Gavriel Shapiro and Mark Nashpits. His name appeared on countless open letters and he participated in numerous demonstrations. Despite this, the emigration authorities were unyielding in their refusal to let him join his family.
In Israel, Victor soon learned to speak Hebrew – the first in his family to do so since his grandfather who was a Hebrew teacher in the Ukraine in the 1920s—and during the Yom Kippur War, he saw action on the Sinai front. The horror of war led him later to Sde Boker, in the Negev, to assume the quiet life of a kibbutznik, as Ben-Gurion had done before him. This in itself was an innovation since most Soviet emigrants compare the communal life of a kibbutz to the rigours of a kolkhoz, the Soviet collective farm.
At the beginning of 1975, Boris and Nashpits were arrested outside Moscow’s Lenin Library for “violating public order” during a demonstration. None of the other participants was arrested. They were sentenced to five years in exile.
The real reason for their arrest was that a few weeks earlier, the Kremlin had rejected the terms of the US-Soviet trade act and thus felt free to deal with the refuseniks without fear of recrimination from the west.
Now Boris idles his days away in the far reaches of Krasnoyarsk Krai, dreaming of Israel. “His letters do not speak of the monotony of his present life. He asks instead about life in Israel, about the elections, about the fighting on the Lebanese border”, says Victor.
For Victor, as for Boris, the struggle continues. When he decides that he has done all he can in terms of publicity in London, he will move on to New York. The expenses that he is incurring have not been provided by any Jewish organisations but from his mother’s savings.
Jewish Observer 13 October 1977