Russia Threatens to Bar Jewish Agency Operations in the Country, Cites Law Violations

Moscow charges that the Jewish Agency collects, stores and transfers data about Russian citizens in violation of the law – referring to data collection to facilitate immigration to Israel ■ The agency says it didn't receive instructions from the Russian government to stop its activities

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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during an interview with the Russia-1 TV channel in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Friday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during an interview with the Russia-1 TV channel in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Friday.Credit: Mikhail Klimentyev / Sputnik / Kremlin Pool Photo / AP

The Russian government has 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 last Friday said the organization collects, stores and transfers data about Russian citizens in violation of the law. This charge refers to the data the agency collects about candidates for immigration to Israel – a major part of its activities.

The letter said this conduct violates Russian laws on data storage and information protection, and that the agency must shut down in Russia.

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

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.

Jews dance during an opening ceremony of an exhibition of the library of the Schneerson family of Hasidic rabbis in the Jewish Museum in Moscow, in 2013.Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

Consequently, the agency is hoping that Friday’s letter is just the latest Russian pressure tactic and can be addressed through talks. It has already begun such a dialogue with the authorities.

As of now, the agency’s informational and educational activities are continuing as usual, as are its flights bringing new immigrants to Israel.

The Jewish Agency issued a statement saying that the organization "Wishes to clarify that, despite certain reports, it did not receive instructions from the Russian government to stop its activities." It added, "All of the agency's programs and planned activities are proceeding as planned."

Increasing 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. The Russian government has leaned on leaders of the country’s Jewish community to publicly endorse its war against Ukraine, with sources telling Haaretz that the Kremlin has repeatedly threatened to retaliate against those who do not comply with such directives.

Last month it was reported that Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Moscow-based head of the Conference of European Rabbis and a vocal critic of Russia's invasion of neighboring Ukraine, had left the country and is in exile in Israel. In an interview with Deutche Welle, Goldschmidt said a “very significant part” of Russian Jewry, which had 155,000 members according to a 2020 demographic survey, had left and that another “significant part of thinking of leaving.”

Ever since the Iron Curtain fell more than 30 years ago, the Jewish Agency has run a variety of activities in Russia, Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries. These include informational aimed at encouraging immigration to Israel as well as educational and social activities such as summer and winter camps for children and teens. In addition, it provides advice and guidance for people interested in immigrating to Israel.

The agency is a very well-known brand among Russian-speaking Jews. Its name is linked in the community with the opening of the Soviet Union’s gates during the perestroika era, which allowed hundreds of thousands of Jewish to leave the country. Consequently, ending its operations in Russia would be of great symbolic importance.

Nevertheless, immigrant visas are actually issued by another organization – the government agency Nativ, whose representatives can be found at Israeli consulates throughout Russia. And commercial flights between Russia and Israel are still operating.

Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata urged Prime Minister Yair Lapid to handle the crisis.

Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata at a memorial event for Ethiopian immigrants who died on their way to Israel, in Jerusalem, in 2021.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem

“We must ensure that the agency’s freedom of action is preserved, as it has been throughout the years,” she said on Tuesday. “I want to encourage the Jewish community in Russia, which surely fears the implications of such a decision at this time. Immigration is a basic right for Russian Jews, and we’ll make sure it remains one.”

In addition to its clarifications that the Russian government did not instruct the organizations to halt its activities, the Jewish Agency statement said that "As part of ongoing inspection procedures that the relevant authorities in Russia have been conducting with the agency's representatives for several years, and as a continuation of the administrative investigative process that has been going on for over a year, the agency's offices in Moscow recently received a letter from the authorities, which included instructions and criticism on the matters that were examined."

These matters, it said, were mainly administrative, but the letter points to issues that its writers found to be problematic and to have possible legal consequences. "The letter invites the agency to respond in writing about its disagreement regarding the facts stated therein, and the agency therefore intends to deeply study the significance of the issues that arose and their consequences, and to respond to them accordingly as part of ongoing contacts that it has with the authorities.

The Foreign Ministry said it is studying the details of the issue, is in contact with the Jewish Agency’s headquarters in Jerusalem and will take action as needed to assist the agency.

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.

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