Four years ago, the Jewish Agency for Israel organized a huge celebration to mark Jerusalem Day in the center of Moscow. For an entire day, in May 2018, all those who visited the Hermitage Park – a beautiful historic park in the heart of the city – could taste Israeli delicacies, join cooking lessons, listen to lectures and take part in round table discussions, and at the end of the evening dance to the sounds of “Tel Aviv, Ya Habibi, Tel Aviv,” and “Hava Nagila.”
A few years earlier, the Jewish Agency, along with other groups, managed to reconstruct a historic picture taken in 1948 showing a huge crowd of Jews alongside the representative of the newly founded state of Israel, Golda Meir, outside Moscow's Choral Synagogue. In 2014, the road to the synagogue was closed to traffic for a few hours, to guarantee an appropriate dynamic for the Jerusalem Day celebrations, and thousands of Jews filled the street once again.
Back then, the Moscow municipality sponsored the agency's events, and government representatives welcomed the participants from the main stage. At the time, it was hard to imagine that the Israeli government would one day be forced to send a delegation to Moscow to save the continued operations of the Jewish Agency in Russia.
The purpose of such mass events – whether it is a Jerusalem Day celebration or an aliyah fair, which gave potential immigrants the chance to meet with representatives of Israeli cities, government ministries, health care providers and employers – is to “collect leads,” as the Jewish Agency employees call it in their internal jargon. This means gathering the personal details of visitors to the events who might be interested in making aliyah, and then maintaining contact with them, according to a source. They tell them that they attended one of the events, and “maybe you’re interested in signing up your child for our young people’s club? We also have a Sunday school, Hebrew classes for adults, and maybe even invite them for our seminar.”
The main claim the Russian Justice Ministry presented to the Jewish Agency in a letter it sent at the beginning of the month concerns this collection of personal information on Russian citizens. Russian law does not contain a sweeping ban on collecting such information, but various restrictions apply to organizations who do so. The Jewish Agency was aware in the past that such data collection could cause problems, so they “walked on eggshells.” For example, they made sure to receive permission from the people who provided their information to send them email – and stored all the data on servers in Israel.
Lawyer Stanislav Seleznyov, an expert in privacy and data storage and senior associate at the Russian free speech legal aid project Network Freedoms, told Haaretz that he has reached the conclusion that one of the violations attributed to the Jewish Agency is storing data on servers outside of Russia – which has been forbidden by Russian law since 2014 – based on his analysis of some of the sections of the law mentioned in the Justice Ministry's letter. Another section mentioned shows that agency employees did not collect signatures from the people whose personal information they collected.
Do the claims of encouraging a brain drain raised in the Justice Ministry letter have a legal basis? The Jewish Agency says they encourage aliyah of all those entitled to do so under the Law of Return, but in practice it gives priority to certain groups: Young people, educated people and those deemed to have business potential.
One of the programs the Jewish Agency operates in Russia and other former Soviet states is seminars for businesspeople and entrepreneurs interested in developing their businesses in Israel. The agency also tells the potential olim about the government programs for scientists who come to Israel. In addition, it encourages students and other young people who want to pursue higher education to immigrate, with programs like Sela and Masa.
Fierce competition exists in Russia between a number of bodies that work on encouraging aliyah. Nativ, a unit that operates under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office, is involved in checking eligibility for aliyah and issuing aliyah visas – but it also operates cultural centers. Similar to the Jewish Agency, Nativ also holds events intended to present the best sides of Israel to those eligible for aliyah.
An unwritten agreement stipulates that the Israeli embassy and Nativ took upon themselves to organize the Israel Independence Day celebrations, while the Jewish Agency focuses on Jerusalem Day.
Since 2014, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews – a group funded mostly by Christian evangelicals – built its own aliyah network in the former Soviet Union. Similar to the Jewish Agency, the group funds flights for olim, provides transportation from distant locations to the airport, and even provides the new immigrants with generous one-time grants – $500 per adult and $300 for each child. But the organization has not managed to gain a footing in Russia, and makes do with operations in neighboring countries like Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
The first representatives of the Jewish Agency were sent to Russia – back then, still the Soviet Union – in 1989, during the perestroika era. The beginning of its operations is tied in the collective consciousness of Soviet Jews with the rebirth of Jewish culture in a country that had started to open up to the West – and the rest of the world, too.
Many still remember the huge concerts that presented Israeli music and culture to Soviet Jews for the first time. At first, these representatives operated unofficially, and beginning in 1991 – when Israel reestablished diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union – the Jewish Agency was given official status, with a wide network of representatives sent from Israel and intensive activities to promote aliyah and offer assistance.
Shmuel Ben-Zvi, who was the head of the Jewish Agency’s first office in Moscow from 1991 to 1993, told Haaretz tha back then he enjoyed good relations with the highest levels of the Russian government. “Between 1990 and 1991, there was a period in which the Russian authorities thought that Israel might possibly serve as a mediator between [Russia] and the United States,” said Ben-Zvi.
“When I went for the first time to a meeting with Andrei Kosygin [Russia's first foreign minister], his aide told me: ‘Speak Russian with a slight accent. We know what and who you are, but it will help to make an impression.’ Maybe that was the reason that I had very broad freedom of action. I could meet with who I wanted, hold picnics, celebrations, concerts. I usually held all the meetings [with government representatives] in cafes, where I invited them there and let them feel that I was available for any question at any time. I tried to have the people enjoy the meetings with me,” said Ben-Zvi.
Chaim Chesler, who served as the head of the Jewish Agency mission for former Soviet Union countries between 1993-1997, also describes a positive attitude coming from the authorities. Chesler shared an anecdote about Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin when Boris Yeltsin was the president: “Yehiel Leket, who was the deputy chairman of the Jewish Agency, was present in all the small meetings that Yitzhak Rabin conducted with Chernomyrdin on his visit to Russia,” he began. “At one of the receptions, Chernomyrdin told Leket, ‘If you have problems with the Jewish Agency, come to me directly.’” Chesler describes his work at the agency as “the job of his life.” He had the “Jewish Agency government. I was the Gorbachev after Gorbachev.”
'There was just one direction: From Moscow to Israel'
Nonetheless, during the 1990s, as well as later, a dubious image stuck to the Jewish Agency among the community of former Soviet Jews in Israel. Some accused the Jewish Agency of idealizing Israel by way of the new immigrants – yet in practice, deceiving them.
“I had a starting point, I don’t embellish Israel,“ Ben-Zvi says. “But I said that Israel is the country that is waiting for you at any moment, which grants you citizenship the minute you step here, in addition to monetary help. I didn’t come to tell fairy tales, but to describe Israel as it is.”
But Ben-Zvi said he was negotiating with the Russian flag carrier Aeroflot to establish direct flights from Moscow to Tel Aviv – in part to prevent potential new immigrants from going elsewhere when they flew through Budapest or Vienna on their aliyah route. Jewish immigrants who left the Soviet Union or Russia with aliyah visas to other countries were cheating the system, as far as Ben-Zvi was concerned. “There were big arguments at the time. It wasn’t pleasant. Many were insulted and were mad at me because ‘I forced them’ to come to Israel,” Ben-Zvi describes.
"I didn’t force anyone, but as far as I’m concerned there was just one direction: From Moscow to Israel, and from here travel to wherever you want. Israel is a free country.”
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Another argument tossed around over the years concerning the Jewish Agency is that the organization is superfluous, and that most of its role is to provide employment and a high standard of living to its employees – especially from former Soviet countries. This was possible because of the differences in the cost of living compared to Israel.
Many in the Russian-speaking community in Israel would argue that “Anyone who wanted to come here – already has,” making the Jewish Agency's aliyah work unnecessary. The agency buys airplane tickets that includes extra luggage for olim who make use of its services. In addition, the Jewish Agency raises funds, usually through Christian organizations, to transport the olim from far off cities where they live to the airport.
But even without the logistical and financial support, most of those who turn to the Jewish Agency would make aliyah anyway, according to a source familiar with the agency's operations. Many in Russia have already forgotten the very lean times of the 1990s. Haim Ben Yakov, who headed the Jewish Agency in Russia from 2006 to 2009, does not agree with this claim: “A very large number of people do not have the possibility of buying tickets today. There are hundreds and thousands of people” who wouldn't have been able to afford it without the agency's help.
It may be that the deteriorating economic situation in Russia, stemming from its war in Ukraine, and the obstacles to taking money out of Russia due to international sanctions, really is changing the picture. But what is certain is that the potential shuttering of the Jewish Agency is seen first and foremost as a sign that its golden age with the Russian state has come to an end.