The Washington Post
Moscow’s move to shutter Jewish Agency stokes fears among Russian Jews
riga, latvia — Russia’s threat to shut down a prominent Jewish organization has stoked fears among Jews planning to leave the country because of its war against Ukraine, while deepening a rift between Russia and Israel.
A Moscow court held a preliminary hearing Thursday about the Justice Ministry’s application to abolish the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and scheduled the next hearing for Aug. 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 Israel’s government, helps Jewish families immigrate to Israel, including organizing travel and paying 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 disquiet over President Vladimir Putin’s brutal campaign to “denazify” Ukraine and topple its Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky. Another 34,000 have traveled to Israel as tourists.
Natalia, 43, who works in IT in St. Petersburg, decided to leave for Israel the day Putin invaded.
“We didn’t plan to leave before. When the war broke out, we decided very fast,” she said in a phone interview, asking to be identified only by her first name for fear of reprisals by authorities in Moscow. Her main priority was to get her 18-year-old son out of the country before he could be conscripted.
Vadim, a 39-year-old documentary filmmaker from Moscow, plans to immigrate to Israel “as soon as possible” because he opposes the war. He sees Russia’s move to dissolve the Jewish Agency as “political of course,” and worries it may complicate his efforts to leave. He also declined to give his last name.
“The goal is to teach Israel a lesson and to create problems for those who want to leave Russia,” he said.
The escalating tensions between Russia and Israel are the result of several recent scandals, including antisemitic remarks by Russian government officials and the forced exile of Moscow’s chief rabbi. Moscow, meanwhile, has been angered by comments from Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who has condemned the invasion and accused Russia of “war crimes.”
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt fled Moscow after rebuffing pressure to support the war, and then stepped down as chief rabbi in July, saying that remaining in the post would have “endangered” Moscow’s Jewish community.
“Russia did more in promoting emigration to Israel during the last months than the Jewish Agency did for the last ten years,” he said in a recent tweet.
Some 600,000 Russians are eligible to immigrate to Israel, according to Israel’s immigration minister, Pnina Tamano-shata. Israel also accepts the non-jewish children and grandchildren of Jews.
According to the Russian Jewish Congress, there are nearly 180,000 Jews in Russia, 70 percent of them living in Moscow and St. Petersburg, many of them well-educated and working in specialist 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 echo for years to come.
Natalia believes the move to shutter the Jewish Agency is “because of brain drain, or maybe it is some sort of leverage. They do not want people to leave, and recently we have seen a lot of skilled and experienced IT specialists leaving — and not only in IT. Russia obviously doesn’t like it.”
Vadim’s grandfather moved to Russia from the Vinnytsia region of western Ukraine in the 1920s, learned Russian and managed to get into a university, where he studied medicine.
“In the Soviet Union it was hard for Jews to enter universities and find good jobs, and many had to change their last names to avoid problems. I think my grandfather was able to go to university only because it was just before the war and the country needed doctors,” Vadim said. “There has always been antisemitism in Russia and the Soviet Union in certain circles.”
Putin is the first Russian president to visit Israel and has 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 antisemitism remains widespread in Russia. An opinion poll from the Levada Center, a reputable independent polling agency, found in December 2021 that just 11 percent of Russians surveyed said they would like to have a Jew as a close friend; only 7 percent would welcome one at work; and only 27 percent believed Jews should be allowed to live in Russia.
Some fear that rising Russian nationalism, hatred of Zelensky and tensions between Russia and Israel could trigger increased hostility toward the Jewish community.
“When they start to talk about tensions with Israel on TV it might lead to antisemitism,” Natalia said, adding that she had never experienced this overtly.
Key Russian officials close to Putin, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and former president Dmitry Medvedev, have expressed antisemitic views recently. Lavrov, criticizing Zelensky in May, said that Hitler “also had Jewish blood,” triggering outrage in Israel and beyond. Medvedev wrote an article in the Kommersant newspaper last year attacking Zelensky in virulently antisemitic terms.
The Kremlin said Tuesday that the move to close the agency was related to breaches of Russian law and “should not be politicized or extended to the entire range of Russian-israeli relations.” But on state television the same day, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova slammed Israel’s position on the Ukraine war, calling it biased and “completely incomprehensible and strange to us.”
Lapid said Tuesday that Israel was ready for dialogue with Russia if there were legal problems to be resolved. A delegation sent to Moscow to try to resolve the issue was delayed by several days, but flew in Thursday for talks, Russian media reported.
Russia’s Justice Ministry has acted swiftly in the past to abolish foreign organizations and prominent local rights groups, and its move against the Jewish Agency may just be the start. According to the Jerusalem Post, several other Jewish organizations in Russia reliant on funds from Israel or the United States received letters from the authorities recently warning that they might be declared “foreign agents,” a signal the government could be coming for them next.