An Exclusive Interview With Yuli Edelstein | The Jewish AgencyAn Exclusive Interview With MK Yuli Edelstein

An Exclusive Interview With MK Yuli Edelstein

An exclusive interview with MK Yuli Edelstein.
One of the most prominent refuseniks in the Soviet Union, Edelstein has been Speaker of the Knesset since 2013.

The Jewish Agency for Israel believes in strengthening Jewish identity and the bond with Israel for Jews all over the world. Yuli Edelstein agrees—this does not mean we should neglect Aliyah –quite the opposite: You develop Jewish identity and the bond with Israel in order to help people to make a decision that is very personal for them and right for us, as residents of the state of Israel. The decision to make Aliyah should not be made because of terror attacks or pogroms, but out of a sense of conviction, Jewish identity and a bond with Israel. Here, we interview MK Yuli Edelstein, the Speaker of the Knesset and one of the most prominent refuseniks in the Soviet Union:

How did your first encounter with The Jewish Agency come about?

In the Soviet Union in those years, we weren’t able to meet with Jewish Agency shlichim, the Jewish Agency Hebrew teachers, but we certainly knew what The Jewish Agency was, and we used things The Jewish Agency created, such as Hebrew language booklets, literature about the state of Israel, including booklets on general topics, and others that addressed practical matters. Special series were available, and books in easy Hebrew which were printed by the Zionist Library established by the Jewish Agency. There may not have been Shlichim, but there was material that helped us.

After I made Aliyah, I was in touch with Jewish Agency officials. I clearly recall my relationship with the then Aliyah Department chairman, Haim Aharon, and the department general manager at the time, David Levin. They were among the first people I met Israel. We were also in touch with them with regard to the struggle for Soviet Jewry in those years, and also on matters relating to absorption which the Jewish Agency then handled.

Were you or your wife in such an absorption center?

We made Aliyah in 1988. Yes, we spent one day, or a bit longer, at the absorption center in Mevaserret Zion, and the following day we moved to Alon Shvut in Gush Etsiyon.

Back then there wasn’t direct absorption. The decision of The Jewish Agency and the government in 1988, to initiate direct absorption was one of the historic decisions that saved the wave of immigration. You can’t imagine how, in 1990, when 200,000 olim arrived, they had to be catered for at absorption centers. The entire system could have collapsed. But that was definitely a decision that prevented a system collapse because people received an absorption basket that enabled them to rent apartments on the open market. Sometimes we should commend those who conceived the idea of “the absorption basket”.

What should The Jewish Agency do with the next generation?

I consistently argue that there is no fundamental contradiction between the two (the opposite is true): strengthening the bond with Israel and reinforcing Jewish identity.

If you state, upfront, at times of crisis (in the Ukraine or France): “You should make Aliyah” that is like telling parents: “You don’t know how to care for your children.” Even if there is something very true in that, you do not achieve your objective. As such, strengthening the bond with Israel, reinforcing Jewish identity, enhancing Jewish education is a very appropriate program, and that should be stated out loud.

Yesterday (last week) I spoke with some Jewish leaders who came to attend the funeral of the four Jews who were murdered in France, and whom I hosted in my office in the Knesset. I told them: there is no Jewish education without a bond with Israel. That is not only true for Europe, the same can be said with regard to the United States. If we bring back all the Hebrew teachers and shlichim to Israel, and the hachsharah programs in Israel, clearly the Diaspora will disintegrate.

We have to maintain the line that the Jewish Agency has taken: strengthening Jewish identity and the bond with Israel. That does not mean we should neglect Aliyah – quite the opposite: You develop Jewish identity and the bond with Israel in order to help people to make a decision that is very personal for them and right for us, as residents of the state of Israel.

The decision to make Aliyah should not be made because of terror attacks or pogroms, but out of a sense of conviction, Jewish identity and a bond with Israel.

You are returning to the expression in Scriptures: "And I saw you in your merciful return to Zion."

Absolutely. If it is an entirely different thing when someone makes Aliyah out of his own volition, and it is not a matter of scaring someone into making Aliyah. Let’s say you are in the Ukraine and you have someone there, who is eligible for Aliyah, but is not convinced that Israel is the place for him. He will move to a different country because there will always be some country that is willing to take in quality immigrants. As such, the two elements should be combined – strengthening Jewish identity and the bond with Israel, with the ultimate aim being the ingathering of Jews from all over the world. This may seem like a longer process but it is a more appropriate approach than scaring someone into making Aliyah. People who come to Israel on a Taglit, Masa or Naaleh will be more interested in making Israel their home, based on familiarity with the place they are coming to.

From a previous interview, conducted by Igal Lapidus of The Jewish Agency in Russian:

Tell us a little about your personal history.

I was born in Czernowitz in western Ukraine. The Ukraine was only annexed to the Soviet Union in 1940, so the Jews lived in Soviet rule for about 50 years, and another generation managed to attend Jewish schools.

I take offence when people say that Soviet Jews are assimilated Jewry. Assimilation means that someone forsakes on culture for another. I always say, partly seriously and partly in jest, that I never forsook Jewish culture because I hardly knew anything about it growing up. My only link with Judaism was through my grandparents.

Photo Credit:

  • Photo Credit:
  • Photo Credit:
  • Photo Credit:
  • Photo Credit:
  • Photo Credit:

When I was five years old, I remember how my grandfather would take a suitcase in one hand my hand in the other. We would go to some street, and walk up and down it until a woman invited us in. There my grandfather would give her 10 rubles and she’d give him a package of matsot which he’d put in his small case and we’d leave. That doesn’t mean that observed the Pesach laws or had a seder night, but they observed all sorts of small customs connected to Judaism.

When my grandfather was 70 he started learning Hebrew. I don’t know exactly why, because he wasn’t religious and he didn’t want to go to Israel. He studied through a book which he brought from somewhere, and he copied words from a dictionary into a notebook. It’s a great shame I never took interest in what he was doing, and I never even once sat down to study with him. It was only after my grandfather died that I decided, possibly in his memory or out of curiosity, to learn Hebrew, using the books he left behind. I also strongly opposed what was happening in the Soviet Union. That is something I got from home, from my parents.

In my second year at university I decided I no longer wanted to live like that, and that I wanted to make Aliyah. The problem was that, back then, it was not possible to emigrate from the Soviet Union without getting an invitation from a relative, and we didn’t have any relatives in Israel. That was a problem shared by many Jews. After I found people in Israel who were willing to pretend to by my relatives I invented a whole story about being illegitimate and that, in fact, I came from a family in which the grandfather moved to Palestine long ago, and that I had now received an invitation from my family there. I submitted the papers, to request to emigrate to Israel in 1979 and, of course, I was thrown out of university.

I did not receive a permit to make Aliyah. I carried on studying Hebrew, to begin with on my own, and then with a teacher called Lev Olnovsky. When he left for Israel, in fall 1979, I decided I wanted to start teaching. Of course I had no formal training, and the lessons I gave were not professional. I taught clauses of 3-6 people in private apartments. Some were refuseniks, and others were non-Jews who were considering Aliyah or just wanted to learn Hebrew.

Was it underground? On the one hand, you couldn’t say that all the Hebrew teachers were thrown into jail. On the other hand, a successful teacher would have trouble with the authorities. That doesn’t mean he would be arrested straightaway. There were all kinds of methods. For example, they would interrupt Hebrew classes. One day KGB agents, together with a regional policeman, burst into the apartment where I was teaching. We tried to hide everything we could, because they’d take everything they saw: books, tapes, recording devices etc. They asked my students for their ID cards and noted their details. They arrested me and searched me again, just to humiliate me, and they threatened that “if we catch you teaching Hebrew again we’ll break your head”. The method of breaking into apartments where Hebrew lessons were taking place proved to be efficient, if they persisted. At some stage people would stop going to a teacher if every class was interrupted. That, for example, was what happened with Yuli Koshorovsky. He was a good teacher but he would be arrested on his way to a class, or immediately after the class started. In the 1980s we also tried to establish a Hebrew study network outside Moscow, because there were very few teachers outside the major cities, Moscow and Leningrad. I lived in Minsk, while Sasha Cholomiensky and his brother Mischa lived in other cities. We arranged seminars where we studied intensively. After a week or two we’d be caught and thrown out.

In 1979 I was at a Purimspiel. I will never forget the atmosphere there. They were so many people jam-packed into a small apartment. The show was based on the story of the megillah together with Russian sayings and songs woven into the day-to-day lives of the refuseniks, and with plenty of humor. The people there had to be forced to leave because they simply didn’t want to go… There was a feeling of togetherness.

In 1984, after the deaths of Brezhnev and Andropov, the KGB tightened its control and decided it was time “to settle accounts”. There was a spate of arrests of Hebrew teachers. Sasha Cholomiensky, Yossi Bernstein, myself and many others were arrested. None of us was accused of teaching Hebrew. Instead we were accused of other things. I, for example, was accused of possessing drugs, Sasha of illegal possession of arms, and Bernstein of assaulting police officers. I was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment and I was released after 2 years and 8 months.

While I was in jail my wife came to visit and demanded they give me the siddur and tefillin she’d brought me. They, of course, refused. When they took me for questioning I saw it was possible to choose the language in which a statement was made, so I told them that I wanted to make my statement in Hebrew. I did it to spite them. The policeman who was questioning me make a quick phone call to the KGB, to ask them what to do, and I understood they’d threatened him and told him to get the job done, because he came back troubled.

“Would you consider doing it in Hebrew?” he asked.

“OK,” I answered and added a little lie. “But we are not allowed to talk before we pray.”

That’s how I got the tefillin and siddur. They removed the straps of the tefillin, but I’d won that battle. Later, it transpired that the policeman who took my statement had a good memory. He called the management of the prison where I was being held and he told them I had some things in my cell which I was not allowed to have. The wardens turned my cell upside down. They didn’t find the siddur but they took the tefillin. They stood me in the corridor and smashed the tefillin in front of me. I reacted by attacking them and I was thrown into solitary confinement and began a hunger strike.

After that I was put in a labor camp at Boriatya near Mongolia. The work there was very hard and I was injured there. They sent me from one hospital to another, at first in Boriatya, then in Novosibirsk where I was operated on. After the operation they intended to send me back to Boriatya, but then my wife spoke out and threatened to go on hunger strike, and was willing to die, if they sent me there again. So I stayed at a camp in Novosibirsk until I was released in May 1985.

Was I scared?

First, no one thinks that something will really happen to him, and you can’t stop in the middle of a struggle, like a tightrope walker who can’t decide to stop. So my friends and I maintained our work. It was like a lottery: some got to Israel and some were sent to Siberia. There was no logic as to why some of us were allowed to leave and others not. You can’t point out a particular combination of factors that helped some to obtain a permit or, alternately, led to some being incarcerated. There was no rhyme or reason. It was completely arbitrary.

I have no neat definition of Zionism. It is my past, which I do not regret, and also my present. I don’t like it when people say: “Zionism means living in Israel”, because Zionism is more than that. Zionism is living a meaningful life, a life of substance, here in Israel. The content is different for each person, and I like that terminology because it fits everyone.

Our generation of refuseniks was different from the previous one -- the first generation of Hebrew teachers worked on the assumption that they were preparing people to go to Israel, so they didn’t focus on grammar or pronunciation and only taught practical Hebrew. We also concentrated on learning the rules of grammar and cultural customs. We requested, and received, from Israel modern language study accessories – presentations, books etc. There were lots of arguments between the two generations about this issue. There were also arguments between those who focused solely on Aliyah, and those who wanted to study and teach Jewish culture.

With time we realized there was no real difference between the two approaches. The difference apparently dissipated with the realization, towards the end of the 1970s, that the curtain had come down and that we would probably have to like that, as refuseniks in the Soviet Union, for a long time.

We heard about the international struggle and we sensed that people cared. Years later, when I travelled abroad to give lectures, Jews would come up to me and ask if I remembered them, that they had sent letters to me. In fact, when I was at the labor camp at Boriatya, after a long day’s work, the commandant came up to me and said to me: “Edelstein, I want you to know that I have a safe with a great many letters for you, but I won’t let you read any of them!” The knowledge that people remembered me, and had written to me, gave me a lot of strength and support.