Yuli Edelstein has served as Israel’s minister of public affairs and the diaspora since March 2009. Edelstein, 52, was born in the former Soviet Union and was an aliyah activist and Hebrew teacher in Moscow before he was allowed to immigrate to Israel in 1987. He served from 1993-94 as an adviser to then opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and has been a member of the Knesset since 1996. He was interviewed here late last month about the controversial conversion bill and the future of Israel-diaspora relations.
Q: Do you foresee a resolution to the stalemate between diaspora Jews who oppose a proposed Israel conversion bill — which would for the first time give the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate sole authority over conversions in Israel — and those in Israel who support it?
A: Obviously there has to be a compromise. I did try some ideas with people in my office. I had meetings with representatives of the Conservative and Reform movements and a number of meetings with [the bill sponsor, Knesset member David] Rotem, and people of the [fervently Orthodox] Shas Party. The issue was to be resolved by the end of December, but I don’t see a solution. I hope that as long there is none, no one will start with unilateral steps.
Is this a pressing issue?
I hear about this issue a lot, mostly from Reform and Conservative rabbis, Jewish community leaders and also from Jews at open meetings. What I try to explain to my Israeli colleagues and to Rotem is that this is something we can’t win.
How do you assess the future young leaders of the Jewish community here?
I participate in meetings with groups of young Jews not to lecture but in roundtable discussions. I can’t say we are in a terrible generational crisis and that no one knows what to do about it, but there is a problem.
It’s not like it was when you grew up fighting for Soviet Jewry and the American public was with you. Today things are quite different and quite difficult. Today we are not hearing anyone fighting for [Natan] Sharansky, but rather that Israel is shooting, bombing, an occupier. One of our tasks is to show that Israel is much more than that, to show issues that unite, excite and bring Jews to a national identity.
When Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, spoke in February at the University of California in Irvine, students booed him off the stage. Has that happened to you?
I went to Yale to speak and the subject of the open lecture was, “Is being anti-Israel a new form of anti-Semitism?” You can’t be more provocative than that; about 100 students came. There were a couple of questions. A lady of Arab origin wanted to know how we treat Arabs. So from my experience, there is more tension inside of you when you go to campuses, and it is not necessarily [warranted].
I spoke also at the University of Pennsylvania and on a couple of other campuses … and at each place I went I’d have a meeting with Jewish activists before the town hall meeting. They asked, “Why we are sending people to talk about the conflict — send us artists and actors and writers to broaden the picture [of what Israel is all about].” So I played devil’s advocate and said that if I sent an actor with his movie, there would be Palestinians outside shouting slogans. They said they were not so sure about that, but that our own people would learn about the diversity of Israel.
So on a day-to-day basis, we are trying to change the subject and talk of interesting things happening in Israel. We had an Israel gay film festival at NYU and a panel discussion with Israeli directors, and the gay and secular community came. There was also an independent music festival we took part in.
Are you hopeful that perceptions about Israel will eventually change?
What gives me hope — because 15 or even 10 years ago we were totally dependent on what the BBC and CNN broadcast — is that today there are new media and social networks. We now have a chance, instead of all the time blaming the correspondents who are there to cover the conflict and be objective. This is part of the reason why Israel is still perceived as a country that 24/7 is fighting.