Thirty years after his release from Soviet camps, where he was subjected to forced labour as punishment for clandestine Zionist activity, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein on Wednesday became the first Israeli politician to address Russia’s upper chamber of parliament, in a triumphant turnaround for the one-time “Prisoner of Zion.”
“Even in my best dreams, I didn’t believe I would reach this moment,” Edelstein told Russian lawmakers in Hebrew, the language that in 1984 landed him a three-year forced labour sentence for covertly teaching.
“Shalom aleichem!” he greeted the Russian lawmakers, to applause.
In his 15-minute speech, split between Hebrew and Russian, the Knesset speaker cast Islamist terrorism as the “Nazism of the 21st century,” appealing to Russian national pride over its defeat of the Nazis during the Second World War with a call to likewise vanquish the new brand of “absolute evil.”
Edelstein also largely refrained from criticising Moscow over its dark past and current alliances with terror powerhouse Iran.
“In the 21st century, terrorism has replaced Nazism as the absolute evil,” he said in Russian. ”To overcome it, the atmosphere in 1945 at the time of the meeting on the Elbe River must be renewed,” he added, referring to a key meeting between US and Soviet troops in Germany that was seen as a turning point in ending the Second World War.
In 1979, the Ukraine-born Edelstein applied for an emigration visa to move to Israel, which Soviet authorities rejected. He was ostracised and relegated to the ranks of the “refuseniks” — those denied permission to leave for new lives in Israel.
Over the next few years, Edelstein taught Hebrew and Zionism covertly in the Soviet Union, until his 1984 arrest in his Moscow apartment on a trumped-up drug possession allegation. After a brief trial, he was sent to various labour camps near Siberia and sustained a serious injury in one after falling from a watchtower. In May 1987, after serving two years and eight months, he was released. Edelstein immigrated to Israel two months later with his wife, Tatiana (Tanya), now deceased.
After entering politics in the Likud party in 1996 and holding a number of ministerial portfolios, including the Immigration Absorption Ministry, Edelstein in 2013 was appointed the Knesset speaker and has held that position ever since.
He was in Moscow for a three-day official visit at the invitation of Federation Council Chairwoman Valentina Matviyenko.