Moscow’s decision to shut down the Jewish Agency alarms Russian Jews


RIGA, Latvia — Russia’s threat to shut down a major Jewish organization has stoked fears among Jews planning to leave the country because of its war against Ukraine, while deepening the rift between Russia and Israel.

A Moscow court held a preliminary hearing Thursday on the Justice Ministry’s request to abolish the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and set the next hearing for August 19.

The Kremlin denies any political motive, even as Moscow attacks statements by Israeli officials opposing its invasion of Ukraine. The agency, which was founded more than 90 years ago and is affiliated with the Israeli government, helps Jewish families immigrate to Israel, including organizing trips and paying for airfare.

More than 16,000 Russians have left the country for Israel since the start of the war, according to the Jerusalem Post, in a sign of concern over President Vladimir Putin’s brutal campaign to ‘denazify’ Ukraine and overthrow its Jewish president. Volodymyr Zelensky. Another 34,000 traveled to Israel as tourists.

Natalia, 43, who works in IT in St. Petersburg, decided to leave for Israel the day Putin invaded.

“We hadn’t planned to leave before. When the war broke out, we decided very quickly,” she said in a telephone interview, asking to be identified only by her first name for fear of reprisals from Moscow authorities. His main priority was to get his 18-year-old son out of the country before he could be enlisted.

Vadim, a 39-year-old documentary filmmaker from Moscow, plans to emigrate to Israel “as soon as possible” because he opposes the war. He views Russia’s decision to disband the Jewish Agency as “of course political” and fears it will complicate his efforts to leave. He also declined to give his last name.

“The goal is to teach Israel a lesson and create problems for those who want to leave Russia,” he said.

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The rise of tensions between Russia and Israel are the result of several recent scandals, including anti-Semitic remarks by Russian government officials and the forced exile of the chief rabbi of Moscow. Moscow, meanwhile, was angered by comments by Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who condemned the invasion and accused Russia of “war crimes”.

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt fled Moscow after fending off pressure to support the war, then resigned as chief rabbi earlier this month, saying remaining in the post would have “endangered” Moscow’s Jewish community.

“Russia has done more to promote emigration to Israel in the past few months than the Jewish Agency has done in the past ten years,” he said in a recent tweet.

Some 600,000 Russians are eligible to emigrate to Israel, according to Israeli Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata. Israel also accepts non-Jewish children and grandchildren of Jews.

According to the Russian Jewish Congress, there are nearly 180,000 Jews in Russia, 70% of whom live in Moscow and St. Petersburg, many of whom are well-educated and work in specialized fields such as IT. The departure of thousands of them has helped fuel a massive Russian brain drain, one of the hidden costs of Putin’s invasion that could resonate for years.

Natalia thinks the decision to shut down the Jewish Agency is “because of the brain drain, or maybe it’s some kind of leverage.” They don’t want people to leave, and recently we’ve seen a lot of skilled and experienced IT specialists leave, and not just IT. Russia obviously doesn’t like that.

Vadim’s grandfather moved to Russia from the Vinnytsia region in western Ukraine in the 1920s, learned Russian and managed to get into a university, where he studied medicine.

“In the Soviet Union, it was difficult for Jews to enter universities and find good jobs, and many had to change their surnames to avoid problems. I think my grandfather was only able to go to university because it was just before the war and the country needed doctors,” Vadim said. “There has always been anti-Semitism in Russia and the Soviet Union in some circles.”

Putin is the first Russian president to visit Israel and enjoys warm relations with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the current opposition leader. He donated a month’s salary to help build the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, funded by oligarchs and opened in 2012.

But anti-Semitism remains widespread in Russia. An opinion poll by the Levada Center, a reputable independent polling agency, found in December 2021 that only 11% of Russians polled said they would like to have a Jew as a close friend; only 7% would accept one at work; and only 27% thought Jews should be allowed to live in Russia.

Some fear that the rise of Russian nationalism, hatred of Zelensky and tensions between Russia and Israel could trigger increased hostility towards the Jewish community.

“When they start talking about tensions with Israel on TV, it can lead to anti-Semitism,” Natalia said, adding that she had never experienced this openly.

Key Russian officials close to Putin, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and former President Dmitry Medvedev, have expressed anti-Semitic views recently.

Lavrov, criticizing Zelensky in May, said Hitler “also had Jewish blood”, sparking outrage in Israel and beyond. Medvedev last year wrote an article in the Kommersant newspaper attacking Zelensky in virulently anti-Semitic terms.

The Kremlin said Tuesday that the decision to close the agency was linked to violations of Russian law and “should not be politicized or extended to the whole of Russian-Israeli relations.” But on state television the same day, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova criticized Israel’s stance on the war in Ukraine, calling it one-sided and “completely incomprehensible and strange to us.” “.

Lapid said Tuesday that Israel was ready to engage with Russia if there were legal issues to be resolved. A delegation sent to Moscow to try to resolve the issue was delayed for several days, but arrived on Thursday for talks, Russian media reported.

The Russian Justice Ministry has moved quickly in the past to abolish foreign organizations and major local rights groups, and its decision against the Jewish Agency may be just the start. According to the Jerusalem Post, several other Jewish organizations in Russia that depend on funds from Israel or the United States received letters from authorities last week warning them that they could be declared “foreign agents,” a signal that the government could pick them up afterwards.

Steve Hendrix in Jerusalem and Mary Ilyushina in Riga contributed to this report.

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