Politics: A Knesset Speaker who believes in miracles

New Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein managed to eat matza on all three Passovers he spent in Soviet prisons.

Yuli Edelstein 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
Yuli Edelstein 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
‘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.
On his 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.
“After 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 behavior.
“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 explains.
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 recounts.
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 working.”
“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 the demotion.
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 Rivlin.
“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 Rivlin].
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 president].”
Edelstein emphatically denies claims that Netanyahu supported him over Rivlin because Edelstein would be an easier partner for the prime minister.
“Why would my opinion matter?” he asks.
“I'm proud 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.”
“I 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 uncomfortable.
“He’s been unfairly labeled as Bibi’s puppy in this whole story, but he’s not just a yesman,” says a Likud source.
LONG BEFORE 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 country.
“First I was anti-government, and then I became a Zionist,” he explains.
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 dictionary.
The books piqued Edelstein’s curiosity as a student of languages, and he began studying them as an homage to his grandfather.
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 Israel.
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 to religion.
“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 complaints.”
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 4-meter ladder.
Despite the inhumane conditions in the gulag, Edelstein managed to have matza on all three Passovers he spent in prison.
“It’s 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 crackers.
“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 recalled.
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 in Moscow.
“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 food.
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, either.
“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 were important.
“At least I had matza for the second Seder,” he says.
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 1987.
“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 US.
“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.
According to Edelstein, Obama will barely pay a political price if he releases Pollard.
“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 explains.
“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 says.
“I hope Obama comes to the conclusion from his trip that if he wants to keep good relations with Israel, he should release Pollard.”