From Soviet prison to Israeli parliament – Israel’s modern-day Joseph

Knesset chairman Yuli Edelstein attends a conference on the topic of strengthing the relationship between the Jewish people and the Temple Mount, held at the Israeli parliament on November 07, 2016. (Photo: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Whether Joseph in biblical Egypt or Nelson Mandela in 20th century South Africa, history has some great examples of people raised out of the darkest prison cells to positions of national leadership and responsibility — including one of modern-day Israel’s leaders.

Speaker of the Israeli Knesset (parliament) Yuli Edelstein, who arrived to Israel in May 1987, will relive his past and return to visit the Soviet prison where he was once incarcerated exactly 30 years ago. But this time, Edelstein — invited by the Russian government — will address the Russian Federation Council upper house in July. He will speak in both Russian and Hebrew.

“Clearly one cannot ignore the symbolism of the visit — which could have seemed like a fantasy only a few years ago — in which someone who was a prisoner in the Soviet Union will stand at the podium of the parliament in Moscow and deliver a speech as the speaker of the Israeli Knesset,” Edelstein said.

Edelstein, unhappy with the Soviet regime, was initially refused permission to immigrate to Israel because he had no family awaiting him. Thus he sought to maintain his Jewish heritage in the land of his birth.

Edelstein was sentenced to hard labor, including a period in Siberia, on a charge that he was secretly teaching Hebrew.

“I would teach small groups of between three and six people in private homes; some of them were Refuseniks, while others were Jews considering leaving, or simply interested in learning Ivrit (Hebrew),” Edelstein said. “Was this a clandestine activity? While it can’t be said, on the one hand, that all the Hebrew teachers were thrown in jail, on the other hand, a successful teacher would inevitably come up against the authorities. He would not necessarily be arrested immediately: there were an entire range of methods used to break up Hebrew study groups.”

“The charges against me were for possession of drugs, those against Sasha were for the illegal possession of a lethal weapon,” Edelstein continued. “I was sentenced to three years imprisonment, although in the end I was released after serving a year and eight months.”

In prison Edelstein tried to practice his Jewish prayer rituals, but experienced harsh opposition from the prison authorities.

In July, Edelstein and his delegation will be welcomed by Russian Federation Council Chairwoman Valentina Matviyenko, who herself visited the Knesset last year to extend cooperation between the two countries. He will also meet with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and various other significant politicians, as well as connecting with the local Jewish community.

Edelstein will also visit three poignant locations: the apartment where he taught Hebrew, the place of his arrest and the prison in which he was initially incarcerated.

“Obviously it will be a special and moving visit,” said Edelstein when he announced the trip. “The goal is to further develop the excellent relations between the countries, particularly the ties we have developed between the Knesset and the Russian parliament, which are better than ever.”