Avi Nofech
"democracy and free trade are the only way to peace"

Angels of Exodus

B-52 on Arctic patrol.
B-52 on Arctic patrol.

Exodus happened twice.

The first Exodus is celebrated at the Seder. The second Exodus is not celebrated, but was bigger than the first. A total of about 1.85 million Jews left the former Soviet Union.

The Pharaoh of the USSR, Leonid Breszhnev, did not want to let the Jewish people go. On the contrary, he wanted to help their enemies and supplied vast amounts of weapons to nations at war with Israel at that time.

As for the Soviet Jews, his idea was: allow a small number of Jewish Zionist activists to leave so that they would not destabilize the large Jewish majority who did not ask for an exit visa yet.

After that, he imposed the education tax. Jews who wanted to leave would have to repay the Soviet state the cost of their education.

The problem was, the cost was set so high that practically no one had enough money to ever be able to pay it.

Among the Soviet Jews, the prevailing notion was that you had to be realistic: going to Israel was just a dream. One had to adjust to the Soviet society, learn its rules, and try to get ahead as much as was possible. Going to Israel was chaloimes.

Jews demonstrated in the US shouting “Let my people go!”. But all they achieved was persuading the Americans. Brezhnev did not care.

In late October 1973 the Yom Kippur War was coming to a close but there were bad news for Brezhnev. Egypt was preparing to switch sides – abandon its Soviet patron and become pro-American. Brezhnev had to act fast to prevent this.

On October 24, 1973 Brezhnev sent Nixon the following message by secure teletype (this was before email):

“Mr. President:

I have received your letter in which you inform me that Israel ceased fighting. The facts, however, testify that Israel continues drastically to ignore the ceasefire decision of the Security Council.

… Let us together, the Soviet Union and the United States urgently dispatch to Egypt Soviet and American military contingents…

I will say it straight that if you find it impossible to act jointly with us in this matter, we should be faced with the necessity urgently to consider the question of taking appropriate steps unilaterally. ”

With that, Brezhnev ordered seven Soviet airborne divisions to get ready to be flown to Egypt.

The word “unilaterally” was understood by Americans as a clear threat and Nixon convened a meeting of the National Security Council and the Joint Chiefs of Staff the same afternoon.
It was decided that Kissinger and Secretary of Defense Schlesinger will be in charge and Nixon kept at a distance. Was it because Nixon was drunk as claimed or was it simply because he did not want to be pestered by urgent messages from Brezhnev? History did not provide a clear answer.

The first thing the joint NSC-JCS meeting did was put the US forces on the DefCon III alert worldwide. Attack submarines were ordered to transit to the Mediterrean at fleet speed making such noise that the Soviets would not fail to detect them even from the other side of the sea.

Meanwhile the Soviet Mediterranean fleet used the peacetime navigation rules to get behind the US 6th Fleet carriers at close range being ready to launch. If a confrontation happened then Americans would lose.

The 6th fleet had two carriers, the USS Independence and the USS F.D.R. “Rosie”, and a third carrier was added in October. Each was tailed by Soviet destroyers, one trailing on the right and another on the left. In addition there was a “tattletail”, a pretend civilian ship with multiple antennas. Its task was to provide guidance to missiles launched by Soviet submarines farther away.

Luckily bad weather provided a pretext for the US fleet not to stay in the area. Instead the 6th Fleet disengaged and sailed towards Italy. The Soviets remained winners and owners of East Mediterranean.

But then something unexpected appeared in the sky. B-52’s were taken off the Arctic nuclear patrol, rearmed with air-to-ship missiles, and sent to Eastern Mediterranean with air refueling.

The Soviet 5th Eskadra was circled by the B-52’s outside of its SAM range. But the Soviet ships were within the range of standoff missiles carried by the B-52’s. There was nothing Soviets could do. Americans controlled the air over the Mediterranean, and were also in a position to sink the Soviet fleet if needed. The airlift of Soviet troops to Egypt had to be canceled.

The chastened Soviets now wanted détente. One of America’s conditions was them letting the Jews go. Several hundred thousand Jews left the USSR between the years 1973 until 1981 when the Soviets stopped Jewish emigration again.

For Soviet Jews, 1974 looked a year the world became better. Hysterical propaganda about “Israeli aggression” was toned down. Rumours spread like lightning that the education tax was cancelled and Jews were getting exit visas.

Nixon travelled to Moscow and agreement was reached on efforts for peace among other places in the Middle East, including the “right to existence of all states in the area.” Soviets were able to buy wheat, corn and soybeans they badly needed. Détente was in the air. Jews were getting on trains and planes going to Vienna, where they could choose to go either to Israel or to America.

But the Jews and mostly everyone else knew nothing of the events of October 24-27 in Eastern Mediterranean. They could feel the tension and then its release, but did not realize the cause and effect connection between the two.

So, freedom for Soviet Jews came on the wings of B-52’s. As appropriate for genuine Exodus, there was a miracle at sea involving Egypt.

Both sides kept mum about the Eastern Mediterranean standoff for years, so that liberated Jews did not even know who were the angels that set them free.

But the Soviets did not forget the humiliation caused by the short range of their missiles. They developed the long range S-300N which are now standard equipment on Russian warships.

About the Author
I was a lecturer in mathematics in Israel and in Canada and now teach part time at Grant MacEwan University and work on a project in mathematical physics. As for hobbies, it is skiing. I can do the black diamond and my ambition is to do the double black diamond.
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