MOSCOW, Russia — Thirty years after his release from Soviet camps, where he was subjected to forced labor as punishment for clandestine Zionist activity, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein on Wednesday became the first Israeli politician to address Russia’s upper chamber of parliament, in a triumphant turnaround for the one-time “Prisoner of Zion.”
“Even in my best dreams, I didn’t believe I would reach this moment,” Edelstein told Russian lawmakers in Hebrew, the language that in 1984 landed him a three-year forced labor sentence for covertly teaching.
“Shalom aleichem!” he greeted the Russian lawmakers, to applause.
In his 15-minute speech, split between Hebrew and Russian, the Knesset speaker cast Islamist terrorism as the “Nazism of the 21st century,” appealing to Russian national pride over its defeat of the Nazis during World War II with a call to likewise vanquish the new brand of “absolute evil.”
Edelstein also largely refrained from criticizing Moscow over its dark past and current alliances with terror powerhouse Iran.
“In the 21st century, terrorism has replaced Nazism as the absolute evil,” he said in Russian. ”To overcome it, the atmosphere in 1945 at the time of the meeting on the Elbe River must be renewed,” he added, referring to a key meeting between US and Soviet troops in Germany that was seen as a turning point in ending World War II.
He specifically encouraged Russian lawmakers to create “an atmosphere of mutual respect between different countries,” and said Israel would continue to try to create a global alliance against terrorism.
“For over years, tidings have come from Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people, of justice and the war against evil,” he said. “Even today, Jerusalem is leading the fight against terrorism, and we will not rest until we win this war and peace is achieved.”
In his address, the Knesset speaker outlined security threats facing Israel, from Hezbollah in the north to Hamas in the south.
“Behind Hezbollah and Hamas stands Iran,” which aspires for regional expansion and “spreads its ideologies of hatred of mankind, which threaten all the nations of the world,” he added.
Russia is fighting alongside Iran in Syria in a bid to keep President Bashar Assad in power.
Edelstein also distanced his past experiences and former Soviet animosity against Israel from attitudes in modern-day Russia.
Noting that Israel was marking the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, he recalled, in Russian: “The Soviet Union supported the Arab nations without hesitation and cut its diplomatic ties with the State of Israel. From then on, all praise for the Jewish state was perceived as underground activity against the Soviet Union, every cultural Jewish matter in the Hebrew language, and certainly the desire to move to Israel — all these were grounds for persecution.
“Luckily and to the benefit of both of our nations, these days are in the past,” he immediately added. “Over 25 years have passed since the renewal of diplomatic ties, and I am certain this time did not pass in vain.”
“Obviously not all the problems will be solved, and we certainly have something to aspire to, but there is no doubt we are on the right track,” he later said, noting the economic ties and visa agreements between the two countries.
From the halls of the Federation Council, Edelstein was to embark Wednesday afternoon on a nostalgia tour of the city, including a stop at the prison cell where he was detained for months until his trial.
In 1979, the Ukraine-born Edelstein applied for an emigration visa to move to Israel, which Soviet authorities rejected. He was ostracized and relegated to the ranks of the “refuseniks” — those denied permission to leave for new lives in Israel.
Over the next few years, Edelstein taught Hebrew and Zionism covertly in the Soviet Union, until his 1984 arrest in his Moscow apartment on a trumped-up drug possession allegation. After a brief trial, he was sent to various labor camps near Siberia and sustained a serious injury in one after falling from a watchtower. In May 1987, after serving two years and eight months, he was released. Edelstein immigrated to Israel two months later with his wife, Tatiana (Tanya), now deceased.
After entering politics in the Likud party in 1996 and holding a number of ministerial portfolios, including the Immigration Absorption Ministry, Edelstein in 2013 was appointed the Knesset speaker and has held that position ever since.
He was in Moscow for a three-day official visit at the invitation of Federation Council chairwoman Valentina Matviyenko.