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A Russian Refusenik Remembers Jerusalem

Minister of Diaspora and Public Affairs Yuli Edelstein

Minister of Diaspora and Public Affairs Yuli Edelstein
Photo Credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90

As one of the “youngest” holidays in Jewish tradition, Jerusalem Day holds a special place in the Jewish calendar today.  It marks the reunification of Jerusalem during the Six Day War of 1967, the first time that the entire city had come under Jewish sovereignty in thousands of years.  Even before King David conquered and built his monarchy in Jerusalem over 3,000 years ago in 1000 BCE, the city has always been the most holy city in Jewish tradition.  There was never, however, an official Jewish holiday that honored the city until after June 1967.

When Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the tragic event spurred thousands of years of mourning for the sacred capital.  The remembrance of the destruction of Jerusalem and hope for its rebuilding manifested itself in Jewish holidays, prayers and even on the happiest of occasions—weddings –with the groom’s breaking of the glass cup. Jews would turn and pray in the direction of Jerusalem three times a day. There were even efforts throughout history where Jewish people attempted to restore political sovereignty over the city and re-establish it as the national capital.

For Yuli Edelstein, the Minister of Diaspora and Public Affairs, who as a Russian refusnik was sentenced three years in a Soviet Labor camp, Jerusalem Day holds deep significance. Tazpit News Agency interviewed the minister in light of Jerusalem Day which falls on Sunday, May 20 (Iyar 28) this year. “I was very young when the Six Day War happened and I remember everyone around me being terribly scared,” Edelstein told Tazpit News Agency. “According to reports on Soviet radio, Israel was disappearing.”

“A close friend of the family came by to tell us that the Soviet radio reports were lies. “”I just heard that the Arab armies destroyed Israel not once, but twice!” he told my parents.”

Edelstein grew up under the repressive and restrictive policies of the Soviet Union era, which muted Jewish traditional and cultural life for decades. State-sponsored anti-Semitism also prevented Jews from working in certain government sectors and advancing in their work.

Edelstein explained that his family felt a great sense of hope now that Jerusalem had come under Israel’s hands. “We felt great relief when we heard later that Jerusalem was actually in the hands of Israel and not in the hands of the Arab armies from Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. The Jews in Russia and the Ukraine were astonished that little Israel could win the war.”

“The reunification of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount in Israel’s hands, and the outcome of the Six Day War, changed the standing of Israel in the eyes of Jews across the world, but especially for the Jews in the former Soviet Union,” said Edelstein.

“For at least two million Soviet Jews, a reunited Jerusalem brought a feeling that there is a homeland and that they must start fighting for the existence of Israel. There was a whole change of attitude—one from relief to pride.”

Edelstein himself was born in Czernowitz in what is now the former Soviet Union. In 1979, he applied for an exit visa to Israel but was refused as Soviet policy rarely allowed its residents to emigrate and so Edelstein became a dissident.  As a Russian refusenik, Edelstein was actively involved in Zionist circles in Moscow and taught Hebrew secretly.  He was arrested by the KGB in 1984 on false charges of drug possession and was sentenced to three years in a grueling Soviet labor camp. He was released in 1987 and was finally allowed to immigrate to Israel with his family.

“For me, Jerusalem is more than just a capital to be proud of.  As the former Minister of Immigrant Absorption, I can say that for Jews who immigrated to Israel–from as far as Ethiopia– making aliya to Israel always meant returning to Jerusalem, to Zion.”

About the Author: Anav Silverman is a regular contributor to Tazpit News Agency.


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