TEL AVIV (JTA) – Yuli Edelstein may be approaching 50, but his face retains the boyishness of the young Hebrew teacher in Moscow many years ago who organized secret classes and emerged as a leader in the struggle for Soviet Jewry.
Edelstein was followed by KGB agents and eventually arrested. He was sent into exile on the Mongolian frontier, where he worked in a labor camp for three years.
Now a veteran Knesset member and former immigration minister, Edelstein sits in a Tel Aviv cafe over a steaming cappuccino and says the memories of exile, struggle and solidarity still feel close.
Edelstein, 48, recalls one evening marching back to his barracks, when the labor camp’s commander approached him and said, “The safe in my office is full of letters for you, but I’ll never give you even one of them.”
Seeing the letters was not important, Edelstein says. Knowing they were there made all the difference.
“You know, 500,000 miles from Moscow in a labor camp, you hear something like that and know you are not alone in the snow out there,” he says, his voice drifting. “There is a safe full of letters.”
He marvels at the force of the Soviet Jewry solidarity movement.
“Israel and the Diaspora had a common issue, one without any controversy,” Edelstein says, adding later that “when there is a feeling of common cause, you can really make a change.”
He says that the lack of a joint goal, a common denominator, is acutely felt in today’s Jewish world.
Edelstein says the events of the Six-Day War in 1967 spurred a pride that helped propel Soviet Jews to come to Israel – and prompted Diaspora Jews to help them get there.
Today, he is involved with marking the 40th anniversary of the Soviet Jewry Struggle for Freedom, which over the course of this year is hosting a series of events and programs in Israel and abroad.
Edelstein is frustrated by the brow beating in Israel over the SIx-Day War and its consequences.
Recently he was sitting with a group of fellow Knesset members who were debating the legacy of the war. He recounts telling them, “When people say the victory was a real curse, they forget that myself and some 2.3 million Israelis would not be here today or would not be Jews at all.”
As for his fellow Soviet Jews who immigrated to Israel, most of them in the wave of aliyah that began in 1990, he maintains that the process of absorbing them into Israeli society is ongoing and cannot yet be judged.
He surprised himself most of all when he joined with longtime friend Natan Sharansky to run for the Knesset as part of an immigrant party called Yisrael B’Aliyah in 1996.
“I came to Israel with the idea of being out of public life. I did not want to have anything to do with it,” he says. “I said I already paid my dues to the Jewish people.”
But when the huge numbers of new immigrants poured into Israel, he and other former activists realized that if they wanted to have a say in how their fellow countrymen were absorbed into Israeli society – and if they wanted to forestall a crisis – they would best be in government.
Edelstein said their presence in the Knesset helped stave off serious problems in employment and housing.
“It would be very difficult,” he says, “to find someone who would not say that the aliyah was not the best thing that happened to Israel in the past 15 to 20 years.”