TEL AVIV, March 19 (RIA Novosti) – Israel’s parliament has appointed a prominent Soviet-era dissident who served three years in Siberian prison camps as its speaker.
Yuli Edelstein, 54, was nominated by the ruling Likud-Yisrael Beitenu coalition and backed on Monday by 94 of the Knesset’s 120 deputies.
Edelstein, who was elected to the Knesset in 1996 and has acted as minister of immigrant absorption and minister of public diplomacy and diaspora affairs, left the Soviet Union for Israel in 1987.
A language teacher by training, Ukrainian-born Edelstein began teaching Hebrew to Soviet Jews after being denied the exit visa that Soviet Jews required to emigrate to Israel.
Security services repeatedly raided his apartment during lessons. In 1984, Edelstein was arrested and jailed on charges of illegal drug possession, a move that he described as ideologically motivated.
Edelstein was freed from prison during Mikhail Gorbachev’s drive to liberalize the Soviet Union. His health suffered substantially due to the heavy labor he was forced to carry out at a camp in the Siberian republic of Buryatia, he told The Jewish Agency for Israel in a 2007 interview.
He is not the first dissident in the family. His father Yury, who had Polish-Jewish roots, was baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church at the age of 20 and went on to become a priest – a bold move in the late Soviet Union, where religious worship, while not banned, was frowned upon, and believers stigmatized by the regime.
Yury Edelstein, who has served as a village priest in the Kostroma province of southern Russia since 1992, is also a member of prominent human rights organization Moscow Helsinki Group.
In 2003, Yury Edelstein sent an open letter to President Vladimir Putin, criticizing the Kremlin for endorsing alleged KGB agents in the church’s hierarchy. Among them, he named the then-head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexy II, and then-archbishop Kirill Gundyayev, who succeeded Alexy in 2009.
Putin, a former KGB officer, did not reply.
Despite professing different faiths, the Edelstein family was unified by a shared resistance to Soviet oppression. “My parents completely rejected the Soviet Union. They did not choose the Jewish way, but never opposed me, never created any obstacles [for me],” Yuli Edelstein told The Jewish Agency for Israel.