Former Soviet Jewish Prisoner Yuli Edelstein Returns to Russia as Israel’s Knesset Speaker

Edelstein, who was imprisoned in a labor camp in the 1980s, made a point in remarks to the Russian parliament to speak in Hebrew, which he was imprisoned for teaching

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein speaking to the upper house of the Russian parliament
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein speaking to the upper house of the Russian parliament, June 28, 2017. Aleksandr Bibik/Knesset Spokesman

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who was born in the Soviet Union and imprisoned in a labor camp in the 1980s by Soviet authorities for his Jewish activities, came full circle on Wednesday in Moscow and addressed the upper house of the Russian parliament.

Introduced at his appearance in parliament by the chairwoman of the Federation Council, Valentina Matviyenko, one of the most powerful politicians in Russia, she noted Edelstein's birth in Ukraine and his studies in Moscow and that he had moved to Israel in 1987. She failed to mention the period that he spent in the labor camp due to his pro-Zionist activities, which included his efforts to teach Hebrew at a time when Soviet authorities were seeking to stamp out expressions of Jewish identity and efforts by Soviet Jews to emigrate.

Edelstein, however, noted it at the beginning of his remarks in parliament. Speaking in Hebrew, Edelstein said: “Today, I stand here before you as speaker of the Knesset, and in the same language that I was imprisoned for teaching. I bless you with the ancient Jewish blessing: 'Shalom Aleichem!' Even in my wildest dreams I did not believe I would reach this moment.” He also said that his appearance represents the closing of a circle not only for him personally but for the Jewish people of which he is a representative.

Switching to Russian, Edelstein devoted much of his speech to Israel’s achievements and to the fruitful cooperation between Israel and Russia since diplomatic relations were re-established 25 years ago. Edelstein, who is on a three-day visit to Moscow, was invited by Matviyenko, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Edelstein will also be meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and with Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament, the Duma.

Coming 30 years after his release from detention, Edelstein's stay in Moscow also includes a visit to a jail where he was incarcerated and the courtroom where he was tried. Following his imprisonment, Jewish communities around the world actively campaigned for his release and that he be allowed to emigrate to Israel. He arrived in Israel two months after his early release. He was elected as a member of the Knesset for the first time in 1996 and has been the speaker of the Knesset since 2013.

Middle East geopolitics

Turning his attention to developments in the Middle East, he spoke of the animosity  of Hezbollah and Iran to Israel and castigated the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip, which he said has been waging war against Israel's citizens for years. "But they treat the lives of the Arab residents in Gaza with the same contempt,” he said.

Russia has close ties with Hamas. Just this January, a delegation of high-ranking Palestinian officials, including representatives of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, visited Moscow and met with Foreign Minister Lavrov.

Summing up his speech, Edelstein said in the 21st century, “terrorism has taken the place of Nazism as the absolute evil.” He called upon Russian parliamentarians “to stop dividing the terrorists into good and bad." Terrorism, he said, is indivisible and can only be defeated "by fighting it courageously, side by side."

Edelstein concluded his speech with a prayer for Jerusalem recited in Hebrew.