The Jewish Agency's preliminary court hearing began Thursday morning in Moscow as the Russian Justice Ministry threatens to completely shutter the group's operations in the country, over what it says are privacy violations due to its data collection practices.
The Moscow court has set a further hearing for August 19.
The larger diplomatic fallout behind the move led Prime Minister Yair Lapid to send an Israeli delegation to Moscow on Wednesday night just ahead of the hearing, which is expected to remain in Moscow for the next few days to resolve what has been dubbed a crisis.
The Russian Justice Ministry had initially appealed to Moscow court last week with a request to shut down the Jewish Agency, which operates in the country as an independent Russian organization. Russian court officials told Haaretz on Wednesday that it remains unclear how significant the preliminary hearing could be, yet it continues to attract major Russian media attention.
The Jewish Agency expects that the parties will be sent for a mediation process at the end of the preliminary hearing – which would be a positive scenario as far as the agency is concerned. At the same time, the Jewish Agency believes that its fate will not be decided in the Moscow court, which lacks judicial independence.
“The Kremlin always protected Jewish organizations from annoyances on the part of local bodies and security services,” former Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky told Haaretz. “What Putin needs now is to show everyone that he is not isolated, and he sees Israel as the weak link that can be pressured, because it actually acted with such a lack of decisiveness concerning Ukraine. This is a typical tactic of the KGB – to put pressure on someone who is having doubts.”
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Earlier in July, Russia’s Justice Ministry has asked a Moscow court to order the Jewish Agency shut, citing a violation of Russian law. It has been operating in the country for 30 years as an independent Russian organization.
The Jewish agency's chairman Yaakov Hagoel said in response that the Agency was playing a prominent role in fostering Jewish identity and strengthening the ties to Israel of all Jewish communities around the world. "The vital activity of the agency among the valuable Jewish community in Russia will continue in order to ensure its prosperity and its connection to the Jewish heritage and the State of Israel," he said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry's Zakharova blasted Israel earlier for its response to President Vladmir Putin's invasion of Ukraine: "Unfortunately, in recent months we have heard, at the level of official statements, unconstructive and, especially, non-objective rhetoric."
However, Kremlin Spokesperon Dmitry Peskov said that Russia has legal questions regarding the organization that helps Jews emigrate to Israel, and that the issue shouldn't be "projected" onto bilateral relations with Israel.
Earlier this week, Lapid said that shuttering the Jewish Agency's operations in Russia "would be a serious event with repercussions on ties," ordering the Foreign Ministry to devise a list of possible responses to Russia if it takes place. After a leak of those possible steps, several Israeli officials warned that such moves may lead to an escalation and ultimately undermine Israeli interests.