‘I’m not getting a grace period,” Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein says with a
smile this week, five days after being sworn into his position.
first day on the job, Edelstein presided over the swearing-in of the new
government. The next day, before the Knesset adjourned for a month-long recess,
he oversaw plenum votes on the budget and the Chief Rabbinate.
that, I had to go work for the real ‘boss’ and do some Passover cleaning at
home,” he jokes.
After becoming speaker, Edelstein immediately made it
clear to MKs who were shouting and interrupting Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu’s Knesset speech that he would not tolerate such
“I’ll always be walking a tightrope in the Knesset. [MKs]
aren’t kindergarten students – they’re elected officials, just like me, and I’m
not their boss or their teacher,” he says.
However, Edelstein laments the
“deterioration” in lawmakers’ decorum that began years ago.
“Even in the
stormiest, most painful and tense discussion, the ‘good’ MKs send text messages
and play on their iPads and the ‘bad’ ones tell jokes, stand in the middle of
the plenum and talk. There are never-ending interruptions,” he
This is why, Edelstein says, he can’t blame US President Barack
Obama for not speaking in the Knesset.
“I told Obama he owes me one, so
he asked me what I meant, and I said that everyone in the Knesset is upset that
he didn’t speak there, so he’ll have to come another time,” Edelstein
Still, “it takes two to tango,” he says, pointing out that
former prime minister Ariel Sharon presented his plan to disengage from Gaza at
the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and Netanyahu announced his support for a
Palestinian state at Bar-Ilan University.
“If Netanyahu comes to the
Knesset to speak about a two-state solution, which is unusual for a Likud
leader, he’ll see MKs playing and writing on their iPads and cracking jokes out
loud. There are legitimate interruptions where something is very important, but
others are meant for the MK to go to reporters and say ‘did you hear what I
said?’” Edelstein states. “If we want the Knesset to be seen as a place for
speeches and real discussions, we need to change our behavior and not just
demand that people speak to us.”
With the unique makeup of the 19th
Knesset, which has 48 first-time members, Edelstein is optimistic that a change
can be made, saying the freshmen lawmakers “want to start
“There’s an interesting combination. If you look at the
opposition, there are many people in Shas, Labor and UTJ who were ministers or
acted as ministers, and they will be very combative.
At the same time,
these new young people are not suckers.
Together with an active
opposition, it will be very interesting and there can be changes for the
better,” he says.
In the meantime, the Likud seems to be continuing with
politics as usual, as Edelstein is the victor in a bitter battle with previous
Knesset speaker MK Reuven Rivlin.
Rivlin had hoped to be reelected but
withdrew from the race when Netanyahu did not publicly support him, and has
since spoken out against the prime minister, even blaming Netanyahu’s wife for
Edelstein sees the story differently, pointing out that in
2009 he had asked Netanyahu for support in the race for Knesset speaker but
backed down when the prime minister said he’d promised the job to
“This time, all I said was that I want to run. I didn’t ask the
prime minister to fire anyone. It’s a parliamentary position, and I thought it
would be fair if there was a vote,” he explains. “Rivlin understands it
differently. He thinks only someone supported by the prime minister should run,
so he left the race.”
As for the clearly hurt feelings coming out of the
changing of the guard, Edelstein says it is unfortunate because he has been
friends with Rivlin for years. “I don’t see this as a dismissal [of
The previous Knesset ended, there was a vote for the job and he
chose not to run. I hope that we can cooperate in this Knesset, because he has
great experience and has well-known aspirations [to be
Edelstein emphatically denies claims that Netanyahu
supported him over Rivlin because Edelstein would be an easier partner for the
“Why would my opinion matter?” he asks.
of my opinions. I reached this point because of them, was elected as speaker, in
the Likud primary and to the Knesset because of them, but I wouldn’t take
advantage of my position as Knesset speaker to promote my opinions.”
don’t think the Knesset speaker needs to be a traffic cop. People ask me if I
will make sure some laws won’t be brought to a vote or won’t pass, and I say
that isn’t my job. The only decisive factor is whether there is a majority in
the plenum or not and if the Knesset legal office decides a bill harms Israel as
a Jewish and democratic state, or is racist or contradicts basic laws. Anything
else, I can’t stop,” he says.
Sources in the Likud said that Rivlin did
indeed lose his job because of he spoke out against some right-wing legislation
and criticized the prime minister.
At the same time, Edelstein has not
always toed the party line either. He was one of the “Likud rebels” who voted
against the disengagement from Gaza and stood up to Netanyahu as minister
responsible for the Israel Broadcasting Authority, giving up control of the IBA
in 2010 rather than listening to the prime minister’s dictates that made him
“He’s been unfairly labeled as Bibi’s puppy in this whole
story, but he’s not just a yesman,” says a Likud source.
Edelstein entered politics, his name became known around the world as a symbol
of dissent among Soviet Jewry hoping to make aliya.
Edelstein, now 54,
was born in Chernvitsi to parents who eventually converted to Christianity, his
father becoming a Russian Orthodox priest. His parents raised him with the
knowledge that he was living under a totalitarian regime, and by the time
Edelstein was a university student he was determined to leave the
“First I was anti-government, and then I became a Zionist,” he
During his student years, in which he studied English and
German, Edelstein’s grandparents passed away, and he found books his grandfather
had used to teach himself Hebrew, as well as pages copied from a Hebrew-Russian
The books piqued Edelstein’s curiosity as a student of
languages, and he began studying them as an homage to his
Soon he started to learn more about Jewish culture and read
books in Hebrew, and by 1979 he asked for an exit visa to go to
His application was rejected and he was expelled from university.
The next year, his Hebrew teacher, Lev Ulanovsky, was allowed to make aliya, and
Edelstein began teaching.
As a teacher, Edelstein also slowly grew closer
“Out of Zionist enthusiasm, I would tell my students that
the Jewish people invented Shabbat, the day of rest. ‘The world laughed for
2,000 years, but now everyone has a day of rest from work.’ I realized that I
was saying these things but not keeping Shabbat. The same happened with keeping
kosher – people would come from abroad and not eat in our house. At first, my
wife and I started keeping a kosher house because we said people endangered
their lives to bring us books and recordings of Hebrew lessons, so how can we
not serve them food?” he recounts.
Edelstein learned more details about
Judaism from the few Chabad hassidim in the area and taught Hebrew, but the
government prevented him from keeping a regular day job. He worked as a cleaner
and a mover, but his longest-lasting position was as a nude model for an art
school in Moscow.
“I would hold Passover Seders with my family and my
students. The Haggada says that in every generation you have to see yourself as
part of the Exodus from Egypt, and that took no effort for us. Most of the
people who were at those Seders live in Israel now, and we remember the special
atmosphere,” he says.
“One time, we opened the door for Elijah the
Prophet and there was a policeman there, saying there were noise
In 1984, Edelstein and other Hebrew teachers were arrested
on trumped-up charges.
Edelstein was accused of drug possession and sent
to do hard labor in gulags in Siberia, where he spent three years, including a
stint in a prison hospital when he sustained serious injuries from falling off a
Despite the inhumane conditions in the gulag, Edelstein
managed to have matza on all three Passovers he spent in prison.
not popular in our day to say you believe in miracles, but as [Israeli humorist]
Efraim Kishon said, ‘This is the land in which we don’t expect miracles, but we
take them into consideration,’” Edelstein quips.
Shortly after his trial,
while he was waiting in jail to be sent to the gulag, Passover came around.
Edelstein’s wife, Tanya, was allowed to send him a package of specific food
items – lard, candies that aren’t chocolate, tobacco and dry cookies. Tanya
Edelstein broke matzot into small pieces and labeled them as
“The real problem was keeping the matzas.
Some of them
were in a box labeled ‘sugar,’ so other prisoners stole them, but I got them
back once they discovered there wasn’t any sugar in the box,” he
Edelstein was able to receive matzot without hiding them for
his second Passover in prison, because he was in the hospital after his hip and
pelvis were severely injured. At that point, politicians and Jewish communities
around the world supported his cause and began sending letters to the government
“There was such a mess, because of all the letters, that they
started taking care of me and even allowed my wife to send another package – the
same kind she had sent the year before, but with fruit and vegetables, so I’d
have vitamins and get healthier,” he says.
When the doctors saw that she
had put matzot in the box, they told her she was crazy and that Edelstein would
be angry with her for giving him crackers when he could have had healthier
Of course, Edelstein was happy to find the matza and, because he
wasn’t doing hard labor at the time, he recited as much of the Haggada as he
could remember in the hospital.
In his third year as a prisoner,
Edelstein used his experience and connections in the gulag to smuggle matzot and
kosher-for- Passover food into the labor camp.
Still, he faced problems
on the way. As he was planning to receive his Passover package, he was caught
with other food he’d smuggled and was sent to solitary confinementrather than to
the labor site where the food would be hidden. Then the other prisoner who was
supposed to bring him the Passover food got sick and wasn’t sent to the site,
“On the eve of Passover, I sat in my shack biting my nails and
imagining I wouldn’t have food for a week, but an hour before sunset, the other
prisoner came in with his coat full of food – dried fruit, kosher cheese and
tons of other things. I looked at the pile and asked, ‘there wasn't anything
else?’” Edelstein recounts. “He was insulted, thought I was hinting that he
stole, and started yelling ‘after all this time, you’d think I would take
something from you?’ Then he said ‘there were just dry crackers. I brought you
all this and you’re complaining that I left them behind?” Edelstein recalls with
a chuckle that he thanked his fellow prisoner and explained that the crackers
“At least I had matza for the second Seder,” he
Throughout his time in prison, the knowledge that people outside
cared for him kept him going.
After his release, Edelstein received
copies of letters of support sent from the US State Department and senators like
Richard Lugar, Al Gore, current US Secretary of State John Kerry, John McCain,
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Frank Lautenberg and others, as well as a campaign led
by the West Bank region of Gush Etzion, where he has resided since his aliya in
“In the first camp, where I would spend 10 to 12 hours a day
working in a forest near the Mongolian border, a disciplinary officer stopped me
and said, ‘I want you to know my safe is full of letters for you from all over
the world, and I won’t give you any of them.’ I was so happy! I was in the
middle of nowhere, with no one around me but criminals, and suddenly I knew. It
didn’t matter what the letters said – just the fact that people identified with
me, left me afloat,” he says.
Following Edelstein’s personal history, it
was only natural that he would be the first Israeli minister to visit Israeli
agent Jonathan Pollard in prison in the US.
“It was embarrassingly easy.
In 1997, someone asked me how, as a refusenik, I still hadn’t visited Pollard. I
was thinking in the concepts of the USSR and didn’t even realize I could! My
assistant called the prison and the warden immediately said, ‘OK, when can you
come?’ so we flew to North Carolina.”
Soon after, Netanyahu’s first
government admitted that Pollard was an Israeli agent and apologized to the
“People asked me if I thought it was right or wrong that ministers
asked Obama about Pollard,” Edelstein says. “This isn’t about being judgmental.
He will only be released if there is huge public pressure. There are 109 MKs
demanding his release, and the American Embassy receives constant emails and
sees rallies – it accumulates.”
Edelstein expressed optimism that the
current situation is different than in 1997, as many public figures, including
senators say Pollard needs to be released.
“The fact that Jewish
communities are turning to the US president [asking for Pollard’s release] – it
wasn’t always like that, and in 1997, many senators didn’t want to meet me and
those who did didn’t look me in the eye,” he points out.
Edelstein, Obama will barely pay a political price if he releases
“I can’t guarantee that a Republican won’t call him a
bleeding-heart liberal for releasing a spy, but there will be almost no
political attacks. He isn’t endangering his status,” Edelstein
“We can say he’s not a hero and he betrayed the US. That’s
fine. But after 28 years, it’s unbelievable that he’s still in prison,” he
“I hope Obama comes to the conclusion from his trip that if he
wants to keep good relations with Israel, he should release Pollard.”