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Biography of Shaul Avigur

Life of Shaul Avigur

Shaul Avigur (1899-1979) was born Shaul Meirov (or Meyerhoff) in Latvia. At the age of 12 he came on Aliya (emigrated) to the land of Israel. He studied at the Gymnasia Herzlia high school. At the beginning of 1918 he joined Kvutzath Kinereth and remained a member all his life. In 1920 he joined the defenders of Tel Hai. He was instrumental in organizing new settlement, and in founding several important defense establishments. He founded the Shai (Sherut Yediot = information service) of the Haganah, and the counter intelligence service (Resh Nun - Rigul Negdi)  and Ta'as - the clandestine defense industry that later became the Israel defense industry. He was active in the fight against the British White Paper of 1939 and then served as head of the illegal immigration authority, the Mossad l'Aliya Bet, which operated to help Jews escape from Nazi-occupied Europe. He was also active in organizing clandestine arms purchases.

Avigur was largely a self-taught man, and the intelligence services that he founded, which would evolve indirectly into the world famous Mossad intelligence service, developed on a trial and terror basis. The Mossad l'Aliya Bet had a total of ten agents in Europe, who were charged with the nearly impossible tasks of organizing illegal immigration, chartering ships and removing Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe.

During the Israel War of Independence he helped to set up the Israel Defense Ministry. His son Gur was killed during the war, and he changed his name to Avigur (father of Gur).  

In 1952, Stalin's paranoid purge of Jewish doctors, the "Doctor’s Plot" rang an alarm bell about immediate danger to Soviet Jewry.  David Ben-Gurion tapped Shaul Avigur, to form a small organization to be called the “Office with No Name.” It was nominally a part of the Foreign Ministry, but actually reported to the prime minister.

According to Golda Meir, “whatever he did, or ordered to have done, was carried out with maximum secrecy, and everyone was suspect, in his eyes, of possible indiscretion.” In those days all Israeli secret operations maintained strict anonymity of personnel. The existence of some organizations was not published, and heads of organizations were known by initials.

Through the Israel embassy Moscow, Avigur and embassy staff built a grass roots underground.  Staffers distributed literature, including a simple Russian-Hebrew dictionary. They gave talks about Israel, Jewish history and Jewish culture being careful to refrain from anti-Soviet propaganda. Beginning in 1955 the operation enlisted travelers to Russia from Western nations who would be willing to bring up the issue of Soviet Jewry with Soviet leaders. Avigur was aiming for three concessions. Soviet Jews should be allowed to express their Jewishness, contact Jews in other countries, and repatriate to Israel.

The post Stalin era detente diplomacy should have offered a means of improving the lot of Soviet Jews. Unfortunately,  the World Jewish Congress, headed by Nahum Goldmann, claimed that there was no discrimination against Jews in the USSR, and advocated improved Israeli-Soviet relations, rather than emigration of Soviet Jews.

The Office with No Name was given the  code name Nativ (path). Its public name was Lishkat HaKesher (Liaison Bureau). Despite the opposition of American organizations, the quiet work continued. The first fruits of this work began appearing following the Six day war, when Soviet Jews took up the struggle for Aliya, Nativ continued its work through agents with western passports after the USSR broke diplomatic relations in 1967. It managed to keep alive the spirit of resistance and to raise consciousness about Jewish nationality in difficult circumstances. When the USSR fell, over a million Jews emigrated to Israel. Avigur retired in 1969, just as the movement to free Soviet Jewry was beginning, and died in 1979.

Ami Isseroff

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