Despite Yuli Edelstein’s ministerial portfolio and 17-year political career, it is easy to believe him when he says he arrived in Israel with no interest in public life. After serving three years in a Soviet labor camp for teaching Hebrew, he says he felt upon his arrival in Jerusalem that he had “already paid his taxes to the Jewish people.” A soft-spoken man of 52, Edelstein today discusses politics in a tone that betrays a hint of his original reluctance to enter politics as a young émigré.
Born in 1958 in the southwestern Ukrainian city of Chernovitz, Edelstein currently serves as Israel’s first minister of Public Affairs and the Diaspora. The path from his non-religious communist upbringing to his current life is at once remarkable and familiar: University years studying foreign languages at the Moscow Institute for Teacher Training, a growing appreciation for his Jewish identity that compounded his desire to escape the Soviet Union, resistance followed by punishment and, finally, freedom.
For his crime of teaching Hebrew to his fellow Refuseniks, Edelstein was convicted and sent to prison in 1984 on false charges of drug dealing. Three years later, he was released on Israel Independence Day and allowed to emigrate to Israel, where he joined a population of around 200,000 Russian-speaking Jews.
Upon his arrival in Israel, Edelstein took a job as vice president of the Zionist Forum, a position he held until 1996. During that time he began his involvement in party politics by advising Benjamin Netanyahu, then in opposition. In 1996, Edelstein co-founded, with Natan Sharansky, the Yisrael ba-Aliya party. That same year, he was named minister of Immigrant Absorption, a position he held off and on until 2003, when a struggling Yisrael ba-Aliya was officially folded into Likud. In the 15th through 17th Knessets, from 1999 to 2009, Edelstein intermittently served as deputy speaker. In March 2009, the new Netanyahu government created his current portfolio.
Edelstein lives with his wife and two children in the southern West Bank settlement of Neve Daniel. With its significant number of Jews from the former Soviet Union, it is the type of community now enjoying a troubled reputation in the United States. Weeks before I spoke with Edelstein, Bill Clinton had publicly singled out settlers from the former Soviet states as a “staggering problem” for the peace process.
Edelstein addressed the question of perceived Russian Jewish extremism during a conversation last week at the Israeli Consulate near the United Nations in New York. Two press attaches and a security guard were also present.
You are the first-ever minister of Public Affairs and the Diaspora. Some would say the creation of the ministry was 20 years late. What took so long?
Twenty years ago, most Israelis would have said, “Take all your ideas and shove them. Who cares?” The feeling was, “There are Jews, where, in Chicago? They may either come to Israel, or give a million dollars to build a kindergarten in Sderot, OK?” That’s it. Now it’s different. When we ask the hard questions of whether the taxpayers’ money should be invested in Jewish education among the Diaspora, and connecting the Diaspora to Israel through all kinds of programs, the majority of Israelis say yes. It’s no longer seen as either-or—either they come to Israel or the hell with them.
There is a view, most recently expressed by Bill Clinton, that Jews from the former Soviet Union are all extreme in their politics.
When we are talking about a million people, you can’t perceive them as unified. They vote differently, they think differently. There are geographical differences. You can’t talk about these people as a bloc. As for [Bill Clinton’s comment], I don’t buy it. It’s common to think that Russian Jews are more hard-nosed. But I learned living in the Soviet Union that a pessimist is a well-educated optimist. I can’t blame Soviet Jews for saying, “Sign an agreement with Assad? He’s lying!”
Are you saying the experience of having lived under a totalitarian regime—
For a normal person, who’s never lived under a state based on lies, it’s difficult to imagine. I can’t blame Jews coming from the former Soviet Union for being very distrustful toward certain regimes and dictators in the area.
Is this why they show such strong support for Yisrael Beiteinu?
If you check statistically, look at the polls, Soviet Jews in Israel have never voted against the stream. They are always with the stream, sometimes with a slight shift towards the winner. In 1992 they mostly voted for Rabin and the Labor Party. In ’96 they mostly voted for Netanyahu, but so did most Israelis. In ’99, they voted for Ehud Barak and Labor, as most Israelis did. And then Ariel Sharon—the same thing. So it’s a nice legend about all Soviet Jews being very hard-nosed. But even if there’s some truth to it because of the experience I mentioned, it’s not reflected or proven in the voting habits.
How do you see the future of Russian Jewish political influence?
There are four parties in which a Russian-language constituency is represented—Kadima, Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas. This diversity is here to stay. Even if [Yisrael Beiteinu leader and current Foreign Minister] Avigdor Lieberman decides he wants to leave politics, the political influence is here to stay. The head of the Shas faction is a Georgian who speaks Russian. There are lots of majors and colonels who in 10 years will be generals. It’s the nature of the political system in Israel. People are coming up the ranks.
How has Russian Jewish immigration impacted the Russian-Israeli strategic relationship? And what is the role of Moscow’s Jewish elite?
The contribution made to this relationship by the Russian Jewish community in the successor states of the Soviet Union was much more significant during the first years after the fall of the USSR. It used to be built on personal connections. If I needed to arrange a high-level meeting for Netanyahu in Moscow in the early ’90s, when he was in the opposition, then I called someone who called someone, and then that someone called the deputy foreign minister. That’s how things worked.
Now it’s more government-to-government. But there is still a role for the Russian Jewish community in cultivating economic and cultural ties. Community leaders like Boris Shpigel, and some others who are also elected officials, they definitely contribute. It’s legit to be a prominent politician or businessman who is involved in Russian- or Kazakhstani-Israeli relations, maybe contribute financially to Tel Aviv University, or a Diaspora museum, or some educational program in Israel.
Do you see Russian identity weakening with the second-generation of Russian-speaking Israelis?
Logically it must be. But my friend has a Russian bookstore in Jerusalem, and he always says to me, “It’s amazing how many young people come there. It’s not that they don’t speak Hebrew, but they buy Russian books.” It’s the same thing with TV, there’s the Russian Channel 9. Everyone predicted Channel 9 would be dead in a year, and now it’s been around for six, seven years. So, ties to the old countries are not disappearing.
I think Israel is strong enough as a society to a little bit get rid of the melting-pot model. People are no less Israeli when they speak Russian to each other, or French or English. Most famous is the story of the Gesher Theater. Twenty years ago, we were trying to persuade ministers that it was a good idea for actors to come from Russia and set up a theater. They were like, “We don’t even have a Yiddish theater, and you want a Russian-language theater?” And we found the money, and before long our actors were winning Israeli Oscars. Now the plays are all in Hebrew, but the theater was a creation of Russian-speaking Jews. This is just one example of this process.
What efforts are under way to cultivate Zionist politics and Jewish identity among Russian Jewish immigrants in the United States?
Russian Jews in this country are in a totally different place. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, my meetings with Russian Jews here were a disaster. After a few meetings I stopped meeting with them. For me at the time, they were like the ultimate traitors. I was spitting and spilling blood and they were here in the United States instead of Israel. And in their eyes, I was a total jerk. We couldn’t understand each other—they thought I should be in New York, and I thought they should be in Israel. It was not a dialogue but two monologues. Now Russian Jews are in a totally different place. Sometimes when I talk to Russian Jews here I feel that I am not Zionist enough. Everyone now has relatives in Israel, and they visit, and so on.
Also, the Russian Jews who came here in the ’70s and ’80s went through a process of understanding that not only does it not hurt to be an active part of this community, but it can help. The motivation during the early years was to “become Americans.” This meant not going to Jewish schools or community events. But they realized that Americans are Jewish, Irish, Mexicans, you name it. It didn’t mean they love this country less. So, it was a process of becoming closer to Israel.
The rest is technical and tactical. There are youth programs. Birthright. Youth groups. An emissary who is working with the Russian Jewish community here.
We had a meeting last week during which the prime minister asked myself, the minister of Absorption, and [current Jewish Agency chairman] Natan Sharansky, “How many Jews do you think are still left in the former Soviet Union?” And we all looked at each other, and no one had a good answer. Some would say half a million; some would say 3 million, depending on definitions. But there’s no reliable estimate. As for Israel, we know that around 1 million Russian-speakers have come during the last two decades. We estimate that approximately the same number went all over, the main bulk being here in the United States and Canada. And, unfortunately Germany has what some say is a population close to 200,000.
Do you say “unfortunately” because of a perceived rise in anti-Semitism and far-right politics in Germany?
I am the son of Holocaust survivors, so it’s very difficult for me to understand Jews going to Germany. I say the same thing when I’m interviewed by German Jewish media. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to talk to Jews who emigrate to Germany, or that I don’t want to see them continuing Jewish life, but emotionally it’s difficult for me to understand.
Alexander Zaitchik, a writer living in Brooklyn, is the author of Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance.