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Russia Slams Door on Jewish Agency

Jerusalem is pessimistic about the agency’s chances of staying active in Russia

Photos: Flash90


he Kremlin is moving to close down the Jewish Agency in Russia, throwing cold water on the hopes of thousands of Russian Jews hoping to make aliyah — and the former chief rabbi of Moscow, Rav Pinchas Goldschmidt, himself forced out of his job earlier this month (“Do Svidaniya, Russia,” Issue 918), is not optimistic the dispute can be worked out.

“According to the indications I’m seeing, most observers believe the agency will be closed down,” Rabbi Goldschmidt said.

A month ago, the Jewish Agency was notified by letter from government authorities that its operations were in violation of Russian law and it would have to cease its activities, though the agency was also invited to argue its own view of the case.

Parallel to this, Russian president Vladimir Putin recently signed a law expanding the definition of a foreign agent to include any body that receives aid from a foreign government, with violation of the new guidelines punishable by up to seven years in prison. On the face of it, the legislation covers all nonprofit organizations and doesn’t specifically target the Jewish Agency. But under its mission of promoting aliyah, the Jewish Agency shares information about potential immigrants with Israel on a routine basis. This puts it in a problematic position, because the Russian government views these activities as collecting information about its citizens for a foreign power.

The Jewish Agency supports not only aliyah but also summer camps and Hebrew studies, and generally serves as a pillar for the Jewish community in Russia since the fall of Communism and the rebuilding of Russian Jewish life. Some observers say the fact that most of the organization’s funding comes from Jewish donors in the United States is another red light for the Russians.

“I think that in general, the Russian authorities were never particularly fond of the Jewish Agency, and this is not the first time they’ve tried to shut it down,” Rabbi Goldschmidt says. “But the context is the deterioration in ties between Russia and Israel. In the past, ties were conducted at a very high level, now we’re talking about sending a low-ranking task force of legal advisors to resolve this problem, which is telling.”

“Under the previous two prime ministers, Bennett and Netanyahu, there were meetings and phone conversations. Since Lapid took office, there hasn’t been a phone call between the two. This certainly points to the fact that ties are not what they were.”

A senior figure working the diplomatic angle, who prefers to remain anonymous, says the Russians’ motives in doing this are not entirely clear, but this clearly goes beyond a simple legal issue.

“The legal aspect is trivial, that could easily be resolved through discussion,” says the senior figure. “But the Justice Ministry’s demand that the Jewish Agency be closed, and its willingness to turn to the courts, shows that this is a political decision to shut down the agency, no matter what.”

The Russian judiciary is not viewed as independent, says the source, and there’s no room for optimism. Nevertheless, the agency will try to resolve the problem through standard legal channels.

I ask the diplomatic source to speculate on what the reason could be.

“They don’t like the Israeli stance on Ukraine,” he offers. “They don’t like our activities in Syria, and they’re angry that we haven’t transferred the Alexander Courtyard in Jerusalem to them, because an Israeli court is holding up the process. There could be other things that we don’t understand. It could be an internal power struggle in Russia. It’s not just Putin. Maybe they don’t want us to take Russian talent out of the country.”

I ask Rabbi Goldschmidt if he thinks it might be related to Russia’s fear of talent fleeing the country.

“There could be a connection, but in the past four months of this war, Russia has done more for aliyah than the agency was able to do in 20 years,” he replies. “If the Russians want to stop this, the best way to go about it is not to close the agency but to end the war.”

In the meantime, according to reports, the agency is preparing for the possibility that it will have to shutter all its offices in the country and operate remotely, a complicated but feasible mission.

The question is, what will happen the day after? The agency has three Israeli shalichim and about a hundred local agents in Russia, and it’s unclear what their fate will be. It is estimated that 1,000 Russians a day come to the agency’s offices requesting to make aliyah. Not every application is approved, but many do qualify under the Law of Return. Making these determinations remotely would be complicated.

Another problematic factor is that there are almost no direct flights from Russia to Israel. The cost of tickets is sky high, and even those who have a serious interest in making aliyah rapidly discover that it’s not so simple. Thousands of Russians are believed to have received permission to make aliyah but are still stranded due to these obstacles.

So what’s next? Interim prime minister Yair Lapid chaired a meeting to consider an official response, and according to Israeli media reports, the government is looking at both carrots — such as the transfer of the Alexander Courtyard in Jerusalem to Russia — and sticks, such as increased support for Ukraine. But because Russia’s response could be aggressive and unpredictable, Israel prefers not to throw oil on the fire so close to the elections.

In the meantime, Israel’s caretaker government has decided to send a team of legal advisors to assist the Jewish Agency in the Russian judicial process, even though experts believe a higher-ranking official such as a minister might have a better chance of resolving the crisis. But as of this writing, even this task force has yet to receive approvals to enter the country, and Jerusalem is pessimistic about the agency’s chances of staying active in Russia.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 921)

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