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From Soviet prison to Knesset Speaker

Yoel 'Yuli' Edelstein speaks on the 30th anniversary of his release from Soviet prison. (Aharon Krohn/TPS)

Yoel ‘Yuli’ Edelstein speaks on the 30th anniversary of his release from Soviet prison. (Aharon Krohn/TPS)

At a distance and in person, it is hard to imagine Yoel (Yuli) Edelstein anywhere but in the Knesset. In contrast to other prominent Russian immigrants such as former Knesset colleague Natan Sharansky, Edelstein appears to have been born for public office. His appearance is sharp and stately and he speaks a flowing, polished Hebrew with only a slight trace of an accent.

He is not exactly quiet, but his polite manner contrasts sharply with many of the raucous parliamentarians over whom he is tasked with maintaining order as Speaker of the Knesset.

The speaker’s office could scarcely be further removed from the cold Soviet prison cell where Edelstein spent three years in the mid-1980s for the “crimes” of teaching Hebrew and applying for a visa to leave the Soviet Union.

The inner office could easily hold 20 to 30 of those cells and that number would triple if the outer foyer leading to Edelstein’s dining room were included.

If the contrast between a Russian prison and the parliament of Israel seems to be a dramatic one, Edelstein says his physical surroundings today have little bearing on the young man who took on the Soviet empire at the height of its power.

“On a day-to-day level, of course I had to be practical in those days. You concentrated on just getting through the day.

“But what sustained me was the knowledge that I wasn’t alone. I may have had just four to five square meters in my cell, but I knew that Israel and Jews around the world were mobilized and trying to help.

“It wasn’t just about me, not even just about Jews. It was about tens or even hundreds of millions of people wanting to live different lives. The struggle was for a good cause, led by good people,” Edelstein said.

Speaking to TPS reporters to mark the 30th anniversary of his release from prison and aliyah to Israel, Edelstein said that the memory of his time as a refusenik is not something he tries to erase, if only because the reality of life in the Soviet Union continues to inspire him in Israel.

“After 30 years, I can say that our country is not perfect — in the sense that it does not lack things to fix or improve,” Edelstein contended.

“But it is a terrific privilege to live in a place where you have both the freedom and the desire to work to make things as good as they can possibly be, where you want to change the things that trouble you.

“In the Soviet Union, from a very young age, nothing seemed right to me. I could barely think of anything that I liked about the place. But I never wanted to change anything. I only wanted to get out of there.”

Asked whether the experience of losing his job, going to jail and then making aliyah has given him a new relationship with the concept of freedom, Edelstein responded with a Passover analogy.

“Of course. Pesach is the holiday to which I feel most emotionally connected. The first time I saw a seder of any kind was in Moscow in 1979.

“It didn’t take much imagination to connect with the phrase ‘in every generation a person must view himself as having personally left Egypt’ and with customs like opening the door for Elijah and imploring G-d to ‘pour out Your wrath on the nations of the world who do not know You.’

“We were always interested to see whether a Russian soldier or policeman would be waiting for us when we opened the door.

“Today, without the immediacy of that feeling, I’m a bit more philosophical. Here it is a question of inner freedom. And that’s one of the lessons from three years in prison — a person is free as long as he believes himself to be so.

“A person can live in a golden cage — where nothing is keeping him there — but he is in ‘prison’ nonetheless.

“The opposite is also true — a person can live in a physical prison for many years, but retain his sense of inner freedom.”

Asked about the possibility of applying Israeli law in the West Bank, Edelstein noted that he and his late wife Tanya lived in the Gush Etzion town of Alon Shvut, but also noted that while laws are “important,” they are reversible and therefore have limited efficacy.

“I don’t hide my view that [we should annex] areas that are solidly inside the consensus and about which there is no argument.

“I don’t think any intelligent person really believes that Ma’aleh Adumim is going to be dismantled or anything like that. We can and should impose Israeli law there.”

That said, Edelstein is adamant that as Israel negotiates the political and diplomatic challenges of an increasingly turbulent Middle East, the society must focus on the unique qualities that make the country “home.” He says he is thankful and astounded at the way Israel has moved from “survival mode” in 1987 to being an economic and technological powerhouse today.

But he warns that Israel must not give in to what he calls an “illusion” of thinking that Zionism and the accomplishments of Israel can be summed up in terms of economic prowess. Speaking about the culture and the people of Israel snaps Edelstein out of his dry analysis of local and international politics and brings him back to the ideas that inspired him at the age of 20 to connect to Israel, Zionism and Judaism, and which continue to animate him.

“If we were another country, I would say, ‘wow, look at us! We’ve got a flourishing economy and a high standard of living. Sure we’ve got poverty and a gap between the rich and poor, but overall we’re doing pretty well,” he explained.

“For the State of Israel, however, that isn’t enough. We mustn’t lose sight of the idea that we are a light unto the nations, that we are about something else. It’s not just about Israeli hi-tech or startups, but rather about the goals they serve. It’s about making life better in lots of places around the world. In a nutshell, that is what we are about,” he concludes.

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