Russia's Justice Ministry Demands Liquidation of Jewish Agency

Israel's diaspora affairs minister stated that 'Russian Jews will not be held hostage by the war in Ukraine,' as the Kremlin threatens to stop the Jewish Agency's aliyah activities in Russia due to a strong rise in immigration to Israel

Sam Sokol
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Immigrants at Ben-Gurion Airport, in March.
Immigrants at Ben-Gurion Airport, in March.Credit: Hadas Parush
Sam Sokol

The Russian Ministry of Justice has asked a local court to rule on the liquidation of the Jewish Agency for Israel, claiming that it had violated Russian law during its activities in the country, according to a report by local news service Interfax.

The news came only hours after it was reported that Israel had clarification from Moscow following reports that the Kremlin has threatened to shut down the Jewish Agency’s aliyah activities in Russia amidst a sharp increase in immigration to the Jewish state.

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A hearing on the topic is scheduled for July 28, which will determine the agency’s future in the Russian Federation.

In response, Prime Minister Yair Lapid has decided to send a delegation to Russia next week in order to ensure the continuation of the agency's work. This came after he convened a meeting with representatives from the Foreign Ministry and the National Security Council.

“The Jewish community in Russia is deeply connected with Israel. Its importance arises in every diplomatic discussion with the Russian leadership," Lapid said. "We will continue to act through diplomatic channels so that the Jewish Agency’s important activity will not cease.”

A political source claims that the Jewish Agency kept its tension with the Russian government from Israel's political establishment for a long time. "Only in the last weeks did the affair become known to us, and we began to intervene," they said.

Last week, Ambassador Alexander Ben Zvi met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Bogdanov to seek clarification and was told that an ongoing investigation into the agency did not constitute political retaliation against Jerusalem, Walla news reported.

According to the Israeli news site, Jerusalem was concerned that the Jewish immigration organization may be designated as a foreign agent by Russian officials angered by its response to the invasion of Ukraine. The foreign ministry had initially refrained from involving itself in the issue, preferring to allow the agency to handle it independently.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai reacted harshly to the news, stating that "Russian Jews will not be held hostage by the war in Ukraine.”

"The attempt to punish the Jewish Agency for Israel's stance on the war is deplorable and offensive,” Shai said. "The Jews of Russia cannot be detached from their historical and emotional connection to the State of Israel."

”There is no decree to shut down the Jewish Agency,” an agency spokesman told Haaretz on Thursday. “What there is, what was published in Russia and what is true was that we received a summons by the court for a hearing on the 28th. That is part of a legal procedure that is ongoing and we will not make any further comments while the procedure is going on.”

Last week, the Moscow Times reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin had signed a bill widening the definition of a foreign agent to include organizations which receive non-monetary support from outside the country.

Earlier this month, the Russian government informed the Jewish Agency that its activities in the country violate Russian law and must therefore cease.

A letter that Russia’s Justice Ministry sent to the agency’s office in Moscow on July 1 said the organization collects, stores and transfers data about Russian citizens in violation of the law.

The letter said this conduct violated Russian laws on data storage and information protection, and that the agency must shut down in Russia, prompting Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata to urge Prime Minister Yair Lapid to handle the crisis.

Nevertheless, it did not explicitly demand that they cease operations immediately; the agency therefore treated the letter as a starting point for negotiations that may have ultimately resulted in a compromise.

"There is no question that we are progressing to new Soviet times,” said Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Moscow-based head of the Conference of European Rabbis and a vocal critic of Russia's invasion of neighboring Ukraine, who recently fled Moscow for Israel.

"As in Soviet times the immigration process was handled by diplomats affiliated with the Israeli Embassy, this will be the case now as well, provided that diplomatic relations between Israel and the Russian Federation will continue to exist."

Over the past year, the Russian authorities have exerted pressure on several of the agency’s branches in Russia by demanding audits of various types. In one case, for instance, they demanded that a branch office hand over its database.

Growing numbers of Russian Jews have immigrated to Israel since the beginning of their country’s war against Ukraine this February, spurred by economic sanctions and increasing political persecution at home.

According to internal figures of the Aliyah and Integration Ministry, in the first six months of the year, 11,906 Ukrainians immigrated to Israel – nearly four times the number in all of 2021. But the number of Russians who came during that same period was nearly 40 percent higher than the number of Ukrainians — totaling 16,598. It was also more than double the number of Russian who came in all of last year.

This would not be the first time that the Jewish Agency has run afoul of the Kremlin. In 2010, the agency had to cancel a meeting of its board of governors in St. Petersburg due to Moscow’s objection to the presence of board member Leonid Nevzlin — a Russian-Israeli businessman who owns 25 percent of the Haaretz Group.

Liza Rozovsky contributed to this report.

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