Russia Moves to Close Agency Handling Emigration to Israel

Russia is threatening to ban a major Jewish nonprofit agency that helps people emigrate to Israel from operating in the country, a sign of the Kremlin’s deteriorating relationship with Israel and of the far-reaching fallout from the war in Ukraine.

Russia’s Justice Ministry is seeking to liquidate the Russian branch of the nonprofit, the Jewish Agency for Israel, which operates in coordination with the Israeli government, according to a notice from a Moscow court.

The Russian government’s move amounted to a broadside against Jews in Russia and seemed to reverse President Vladimir V. Putin’s efforts over the years to build closer ties to Israel and to the Jewish community.

A preliminary hearing has been set for July 28, and Prime Minister Yair Lapid of Israel said Thursday that he would send a delegation to Russia for talks aimed at keeping the agency operating there.

“The Jewish community in Russia is deeply connected with Israel,” Mr. Lapid said in a statement. “We will continue to act through diplomatic channels so that the Jewish Agency’s important activity will not cease.”

The Justice Ministry did not disclose why it was seeking to shut down the agency’s Russian branch and did not respond to a request for comment.

But according to an official at the Jewish Agency, the ministry sent a letter about two weeks ago to the agency’s Moscow office accusing it of violating privacy laws by keeping the details of applicants for emigration to Israel in a database.

The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly during the legal proceeding, said the letter included a gripe unrelated to the legal claims: that Israel has been taking some of the best minds out of Russia, which is home to hundreds of thousands of people of Jewish descent.

After Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Israel became one of the main destinations for a wave of emigration, an exodus that included many workers from Russia’s tech industry. About 16,000 Russian citizens have registered as immigrants in Israel since the start of the war, more than three times as many as in all of last year; another 34,000 arrived as tourists.

President Vladimir V. Putin during a visit to Israel in 2020.Credit…Pool photo by Abir Sultan

The Jewish Agency official said that Russian disgruntlement with Israel over a variety of other matters might also help explain the new Russian pressure. These include Israeli military activities in Syria and a dispute over church property in Jerusalem.

Israeli officials have also become increasingly outspoken in their criticism of Russia’s war in Ukraine, after initially trying to tread a diplomatic middle path. Last week, Israel began providing helmets and other protective equipment to Ukrainian rescue forces and civilian organizations after earlier refusing to do so, and Mr. Lapid signed a joint declaration with President Biden expressing “concerns regarding the ongoing attacks against Ukraine.”

“The attempt to punish the Jewish Agency for Israel’s stance on the war is deplorable and offensive,” Israel’s minister for diaspora affairs, Nachman Shai, said in a statement on Thursday. “The Jews of Russia cannot be detached from their historical and emotional connection to the State of Israel.”

The Jewish Agency, founded nearly a century ago as the Jewish Agency for Palestine, was instrumental in helping establish Israel in 1948, and has facilitated the emigration of millions of Jews from around the globe. It describes itself as the largest Jewish nonprofit organization in the world, and runs social programs in Israel and for Jewish communities abroad.

The agency was banned in the Soviet Union, where Jews faced pervasive discrimination, until its final years. About a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union arrived in Israel from the late 1980s to the end of the 1990s. The agency now helps Russians with Jewish roots move to Israel and runs Sunday schools and Hebrew classes across Russia.

It is also active in Ukraine and is providing emergency aid to Jews there. Its Russian-language website invites visitors to enter the names and email addresses of Jewish relatives in Ukraine to allow the agency “to help rescue them from the war zone, provide them with temporary shelter and enable them to repatriate to Israel.”

In a phone interview, the president of the Russian Jewish Congress, Yuri Kanner, said that the Russian government’s move to liquidate the agency represented a blow to Russia’s Jewish community, even if a complete dismantling of its operations could still be averted. He predicted that the flow of Russians moving to Israel — as evidenced, he said, by a sharp rise in interest in learning Hebrew — would increase even further.

“It’s possible that someone thought that by doing this they could limit” Russian emigration to Israel, he said of the potential ban of the Jewish Agency. “I think the result will be different — it’ll give a new impetus to the wave of departures.”

Mr. Kanner said that, for the moment, he was not registering a rise in antisemitism in Russian society or seeing a crackdown on Jewish life in Russia. But the government’s move against the high-profile Jewish Agency comes amid a rapid shift in Mr. Putin’s geopolitics and in the domestic political landscape — raising echoes of the Soviet era, when Jews suffered from being seen as having dual loyalties.

For years, Mr. Putin worked to nurture ties to the Jewish community and to Israel. He supported the construction of a Jewish museum in Moscow and hosted Benjamin Netanyahu, then the Israeli prime minister, as a guest of honor at the World War II Victory Day parade in Moscow in 2018.

Benjamin Netanyahu was a guest of honor at the World War II Victory Day parade in Moscow in 2018.Credit…Pool photo by Maxim Shipenkov

But the war in Ukraine has left Mr. Putin groping for allies in his escalating conflict with the West, while feeding an expanding campaign against anyone inside Russia with suspect loyalties. Earlier this week, Mr. Putin visited Iran, Israel’s archenemy, and celebrated a rapidly tightening relationship in a meeting with the country’s supreme leader.

Inside Russia, the government this year has cracked down on numerous organizations with foreign ties, from German political foundations to the American-funded Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. In December, it used a Moscow court to liquidate Memorial International, the country’s most prominent human rights organization, in a proceeding similar to the one now underway against the Jewish Agency.

And in Israel, a politics long influenced by a large and influential Russian-speaking diaspora is moving away from the Kremlin. Naftali Bennett, Israel’s prime minister when the war broke out in February, avoided direct criticism of Russia, citing Israel’s security interests in Syria as well as the need to protect the safety and free movement of Jews in both Ukraine and Russia.

Mr. Lapid, who took over as prime minister on July 1 after Mr. Bennett’s government collapsed, has largely abandoned Mr. Bennett’s attempts at mediating in the war and has said that Russia has committed war crimes in Ukraine.

For Jews who have remained in Russia, the apparent crackdown on the Jewish Agency served as the latest disconcerting turn. In Volgograd in southern Russia, a Jewish community leader, Yael Ioffe, said in a phone interview that the rate of emigration to Israel from her city appeared to have doubled in recent months.

She said that people of Jewish descent were emigrating not for fear of persecution of Jews, but because of the overall “unstable situation — or the expectation of an unstable situation.”

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