Closing a circle: Former Refusenik Yuli Edelstein returns to Moscow as Knesset Speaker

This week Yuli Edelstein, the Speaker of the Knesset, made history by being the first Israeli to address the Russian Parliament. And in wonderful twist of history, Edelstein was formerly a Prisoner of Zion or a Refusenik –  a Jew who was imprisoned by the USSR on trumped up charges because he he refused to stop teaching Hebrew and Zionism.

Yuli Edelstein, Speaker of the Knesset, addresses the Russian Parliament, June 2017

MOSCOW – Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a former Prisoner of Zion, on Wednesday became the first Israeli to address the Russian parliament, speaking about the turnaround in ties between the two countries.

Edelstein began by pointing out the historical significance of his speech to the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament.

“Thirty-three years ago, I was a prisoner here in Moscow, [held] by the authorities of the Soviet Union, for the crime of teaching the Hebrew language,” Edelstein said, speaking in Hebrew.

“I was imprisoned because I taught the language that told the world of the rejection of tyranny and the rise of just rule, love of humanity and the hope for freedom.

“The language in which the prophets of Israel prophesied about the day that ‘nation will not lift up sword against nation, and they will no longer learn war.’ I was imprisoned because I acted to spread the language in which Abraham, the founder of the Jewish people, was told: ‘Go from your land, the place you were born, the home of your father, to the land I will show you.’ Only after nine years as a refusenik, including three years of hard labor in the Gulag, could I also follow in Abraham’s footsteps,” he added.

Edelstein said he never could have dreamed he would reach such a moment, which he described as coming full circle twice – first for himself and second for the Jewish people.

These incredibly inspiring and uplifting words were followed by warnings about the role that Russia is playing in the Middle East:

Edelstein praised the growing diplomatic and economic ties between Israel and Russia, and the contribution of a million Russian-speaking Israelis to the change.

In a pointed message to Russia about its alliances in the Middle East, Edelstein addressed threats to Israel.

“I’ve met experts who claimed that Hezbollah is not a gang but a semipolitical organization. But as long as Jerusalem isn’t ‘liberated’ from Zionist control, the mission of the semipolitical organization’s leaders will never be complete,” he explained.

“The situation in the South isn’t better…. Hamas has no consideration for the lives of Israeli civilians and has been fighting a war of terrorism against them for years. But they treat the Arab residents of Gaza with the same disregard….

Every missile shot at Israel from the Strip is worth dozens of boxes of diapers, medicine, toys, food.”

The Knesset speaker said terrorist attacks anywhere in the world are no different from those in Israel and should not be categorized as done by the right or wrong terrorists. He called to unite and fight terrorism side by side.

“Terrorism,” he said, “has taken the place of Nazism as the ultimate evil of the 21st century, and the spirit of 1945 must be revived to fight it…. This spirit will allow close cooperation to fight terrorism, to share information and experience. We can move toward a world in which no one will have to look into the eyes of a mother who lost her only child to a terrorist attack.

Edelstein ended the speech with a prayer for peace in Jerusalem, in Hebrew.

Following his address, Edelstein made a tour of his previous life under the Soviet system.

Yuli Edelstein, Speaker of the Knesset, addresses the Russian Parliament in Moscow

Lahav Harkov in the Jerusalem Post interviewed Edelstein about his memories:

MOSCOW – Emotions were high throughout Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s visit to Moscow this week. Sometimes, Edelstein seemed to be at a loss for words, but when he found them, he said things like “mirage” or “not in my wildest dreams.”

What could describe the feeling of standing before the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, and speaking in Hebrew, 33 years after he was sentenced to hard labor in the gulag for teaching that very same language?

His speech was only the first of a series of touching moments on Wednesday. The Knesset and Israeli Embassy in Russia organized a day that may as well have been titled: “Yuli Edelstein – This is Your Life.” The delegation made stop after stop at sites from his life as a refusenik, and Edelstein was a fount of stories and details.

Edelstein retold the story of his arrest on a Friday in August 1984. Several hours before Shabbat, plainclothes police came to his apartment to search the place. This had happened several times before – refuseniks would call it “cleanup,” because the police would take away their Hebrew books – so Edelstein did not suspect this time would be different.

As Shabbat approached, Edelstein’s father went out to the balcony to watch out for expected guests. He was able to signal to them that there was trouble and to head them off.

Meanwhile, the police found their excuse after Edelstein’s wife Tanya lit Shabbat candles. They planted a matchbox of their own with drugs in the apartment. At that point, it was clear that this was not a regular “cleanup” visit. Edelstein was taken to jail until his trial, nearly four months later.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein visits the Butyrka Prison in Moscow, where he was jailed for three months ahead of his trial in 1984, on June 28, 2017. (Courtesy Israeli Embassy in Russia)

Edelstein also took the opportunity to thank and commend the courage of Diaspora Jews who visited him and other refuseniks in the Soviet Union and brought them books and religious materials, at risk to their own safety.

The courtroom where Edelstein was sentenced

The head judge of the local courthouse surprised Edelstein with two documents that had been confiscated when he was sent to the Gulag: his original birth certificate and his labor union card.

His lawyer admitted that he couldn’t actually help him, but was willing to pass messages between him and his family. The defense was mostly ignored by the judge, and the lawyer, who had 30 years of experience, grew increasingly frustrated and shouted at the judge.

Edelstein’s wife, Tanya, who died in 2014, wrote how things unfolded, and the transcript told the tale of a show trial. The witnesses told inconsistent stories, and although the court admitted there was insufficient evidence that Edelstein used drugs, he was convicted of drug charges.

When the judge allowed Edelstein to address the court, he said: “I hope justice will be done here, but if not, my people and my God will help me.” Speaking to the delegation, Edelstein added: “Justice was not done, but my people and my God did indeed help me.”

He’d been in jail for a few days before the trial, but Edelstein remembered that it was Hanukka, and as he was led out of the room, he shouted to his wife: “What candle is it?” The answer: The second.

Butyrka Prison

That night, in cell 138 at Butyrka Prison, a 150-year-old fortress in the center of Moscow where many Soviet political prisoners were sent before Siberia, Edelstein came as close to lighting Hanukka candles as he could. He lit two matches, said the bracha, and held on to them until they burned his fingertips.

“Then I spent the next two hours convincing the other inmates in my cell that I wasn’t crazy,” he quipped.

Like his Hanukka story, many of Edelstein’s recollections had a hassidic quality to them, reminiscent of the tales told of rebbes of yore resisting antisemitic decrees. He spoke of many instances in which he went to great lengths to observe Jewish tradition.

Edelstein’s story, of course, is not a typical rehabilitated-prisoner success story, but much more. As he said, his trip was “coming full circle twice – once for myself and once for the Jewish people.” The former Prisoner of Zion, returning to the scene of his “crime” of teaching Hebrew, proudly spoke in that language to the Russian parliament as the representative of the State of Israel.

Marissa Newman in the Times of Israel has more:

The prison experience, however difficult, could not compare to his later forced labor in Siberia for two years and eight months, Edelstein emphasized throughout.

“These are the gates of hell, but not hell itself,” he said.

In the courtyard of his old apartment buried behind a block of dreary Soviet-style apartments, he pointed up to the fifth-floor window, where KGB agents in September 1984 claimed to find a matchbox containing 1.8 grams of opium and hashish in their searches.

On the day of the raid, two ‘tourists’ from Sweden, namely Jews who came to gather information, arrived at the door with backpacks, he said.

“I saw the scene [unfold], and I started to scream in English: ‘They’re all KGB! Don’t come in. I’m Yuli Edelstein, this is a search, get out!”

The same people came back an hour later, this time without their backpacks, and again attempted to enter.

“The next day, I met them, because I wasn’t arrested [immediately] and I said, ‘What are you, crazy? Didn’t you hear what I said? They said ‘yes, but we saw that there’s a search and we knew you were Yuli Edelstein and they wanted to arrest you, so we came to save you.’”

“I told the story in Stockholm [in 2014], at a Shabbat dinner, and a man came up to me and told me ‘I’m one of those people.’ So I don’t know how the wheel turns,” said Edelstein. “We always talk about ourselves. We were the refuseniks and the Prisoners of Zion, but there were people supporting us,” he said.

In a meeting with the courthouse president, Edelstein was given back his original birth certificate and membership documents of a labor union, in a gesture that he emphatically rejected as an apology.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein with his parents (courtesy)

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein with his parents (courtesy)

“I don’t want an apology from anyone. I don’t need it. These are not the same people,” he said.

But, he added: “I hope I am not getting the court president in trouble, but when I left, she told me: You are an example to other people, [that] everyone takes their lives in their own hands and must do what they want, not what others want. So if she at least thinks about that during a trial here today, then I’ve done my part, 33 years ago.”

And the wonderful commentator Sivan Rahav Meir (of whom I have become a huge fan) connects Edelstein’s words in his address to the Russian Parliament to this week’s Torah portion (via Elchanan):

The headlines stated yesterday: “A Senior Israeli Representative Speaks for the First Time in the Russian Parliament”. And this is not just any representative. This is the Chairman of the Knesset, Yuli (Yoel) Edelstein.

In this week’s Portion, there appears a very special song that the People of Israel sing: “And from the wilderness to Mattanah; and from Mattanah to Nahaliel; and from Nahaliel to Bamoth”. The commentators explain that this song describes our history, one stage at a time: in the wilderness we received a present (a Mattanah) called the Torah. If we keep this Mattanah and stick to it, we would become G-d’s possession (Nahala): Nahaliel (G-d’s possession). And if we continue on this path even further, we would rise up on the Stage ( Bamah) of history and will never descend from it; our message would become eternal, while other nations and other glorious cultures would disappear. Now, more than 3,000 years later, this song endures. We have not descended from the Stage! “And from the wilderness to Mattanah;and from Mattanah to Nahaliel; and from Nahaliel – to Bamoth”.

Here are the opening words of Yuli Edelstein in his speech yesterday to the Russian Parliament: “Thirty three years ago I was imprisoned here in Moscow by the Soviet authorities for the sin of teaching the Hebrew language. I was imprisoned because I taught the language that has told the world of the rejection of tyranny, of the rule of justice, of the love of man and of the hope for freedom. I was imprisoned because I labored to spread the language in which it was said to Abraham, the founder of the Jewish faith: ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land that I will show you.’

“Only after nine years of being a Refusenik, including three years of forced labor in the Gulag, was I able to walk in the footsteps of Abraham Avinu. Exactly thirty years ago I made Aliyah to Israel, the place in which the Jewish State was reestablished. Even in my sweetest dreams I had never believed that I would get to live that moment. For me, this is coming full circle twice: once on my own, Yuli Edelstein’s, and then the entire Jewish Nation’s, as a representative of which I am standing here today”.

“Today, I stand here in front of you as the Chairman of the Israeli Knesset, and using the exact language for which I was imprisoned for illegally teaching, I bless you with the ancient Hebrew blessing: Shalom Aleichem (May Peace Be upon You)”.

May Edelstein’s words resonate strongly with those who need to learn the appropriate lessons. And may we all be inspired to greater and better things through his example.

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2 Responses to Closing a circle: Former Refusenik Yuli Edelstein returns to Moscow as Knesset Speaker

  1. Pingback: Closing a circle: Former Refusenik Yuli Edelstein returns to Moscow as Knesset Speaker – 24/6 Magazine

  2. Reality says:

    What an amazing man.How I wish all Jews including all the different types of Judaism that is coming to the fore and causing all sorts of problems for the Jewish religion worldwide,would emulate Yuli Edelstein.He stuck to his principles and is revered today because of that.He has never ,even in his darkest moments,thought to change or alter Judaism.For this he was rewarded greatly,by being released,coming to Israel,and achieving the position of Chairman of the Knesset.No mean feat.
    I applaud him and wish that he continue to go from strength to strength shining the light amongst the nation’s.

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