Russia targets the Jewish Agency

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a press conference on Feb. 15, 2022
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a press conference on Feb. 15, 2022 (Photo by Sergey Guneev / Presidential Executive Office of Russia / Wikimedia Commons / Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0))

There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Jewish Agency for Israel office in Moscow. Here is what we know: Last month, Russia’s Justice Ministry called for the Jewish Agency to end operations in that country. Last week, a Russian court held a preliminary hearing on the Justice Ministry’s application to close the office. The next hearing is scheduled for Aug. 19.

The Jewish Agency is the quasi-governmental body that, among other things, helps Jews immigrate to Israel. Russian Jews need the Jewish Agency presence in their country to help facilitate aliyah efforts, which have surged since Russia invaded Ukraine.

The potential closing of the Jewish Agency office in Moscow is serious business — a move that would have significant symbolic as well as practical implications. The threatened closure brings to mind the dark decades of the Soviet Union when Jews were barred from leaving that country and were punished for trying to do so. That changed in the 1980s, when the Iron Curtain parted to allow emigration. Since 1989, some 1.7 million Jews have emigrated from the Former Soviet Union, with more than a million of them going to Israel.

Russian authorities have explained the request for closure based upon the assertion that the Jewish Agency’s collection of immigrant data violates Russia’s privacy laws. But no one takes that claim seriously. Instead, most agree that the move is retaliation for Israel’s new leadership, headed by Prime Minister Yair Lapid, speaking out against Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. When Russia first invaded Ukraine, Naftali Bennett was Israel’s prime minister and Lapid was foreign minister. Bennett sought to position himself as a neutral. He traveled to Russia early in the war to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and sought to mediate potential peace talks between Ukraine and Russia. That never happened. But even as Bennett was playing the neutral, his foreign minister was vocal in joining Western condemnation of Russia’s aggression.

Another cause for mounting tension is Russia’s increasing embrace of Iran, a country whose leaders regularly call for Israel’s destruction. Last month, Putin traveled to Iran for talks with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This was Putin’s first visit to a country outside the former USSR since the invasion of Ukraine and it sent a clear message.

Israel is watching these developments closely. Lapid has warned Russia against closing the Jewish Agency office, saying that doing so would hurt the relationship between the two countries. Israel wants to send a diplomatic team to Russia to discuss the issue, and that’s a good idea. This is not a matter that should be debated by the parties on the public stage. It is a serious matter that requires careful diplomacy that can only be handled in private. And diplomatic navigation will likely require acceptance of the fact that, in a world of bad choices, it is more important for Russian Jews to have access to a Jewish Agency office than to have Israel join the Western boycott of Russia. Quite simply, Israel must avoid poking the Russian bear.

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