Suspension of Jewish Agency increases tensions between Israel and Russia

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JERUSALEM – The Israeli government is pushing back against moves by Moscow to outlaw the private agency that helps Russian Jews immigrate to Israel, ramping up tensions between the two uneasy allies, which have worsened since the invasion of Ukraine in February.

A Russian court is expected this week to approve a government request to shut down the Jewish Agency for Israel, a private charity closely affiliated with the Israeli government. Prime Minister Yair Lapid has dispatched an emergency delegation to discuss the case with Russian officials, but that group was still waiting Monday for Moscow to grant it permission to travel.

The Jewish Agency has been vital to helping more than 238,000 Jews immigrate from Russia since 1989. The group has also facilitated a surge of 16,000 immigrants since the war in Ukraine began and 37,000 more who entered Israel on tourist visas and are either seeking residency status or waiting out the war.

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Israel said it was preparing a range of retaliatory actions it would consider if Russia follows through with the ban, although officials would not specify what they were.

“We’re in a battle here. This isn’t shutting down McDonald’s, ”a senior Israeli official told the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth. “We won’t accept this silently.”

The Russian Ministry of Justice, which made the request to shutter the agency, did not specify its issues with the group, only that it was in “violation of Russian law in carrying out its activities.”

A Jewish Agency official said the Russians seemed to be characterizing the agency’s routine collection of immigrants’ personal data as a violation of privacy laws, an accusation he characterized as an obvious pretense.

“It’s routine paperwork. No one is hiding it. It’s what the Jewish Agency has always done, ”said the official, who asked not to be identified to discuss the sensitive case. “It’s something absurd. And it shows us that there are ulterior motives. “

The official speculated that the highly unusual move could be due to a variety of reasons: a broader Russian crackdown on foreign-linked organizations, retaliation against Israel’s support of Ukraine or even an expansion of the kind of “extortion” that targeted the Jewish Agency in the past. Russian officials have harassed Jewish Agency field officers before the cases were settled to show “us who’s the boss,” the official said.

It could also potentially be an internal Russian political rivalry, in which one part of the government is using the Jewish Agency as a political pawn to challenge another.

He said Russia has not officially asked it to curtail its operations and that the group continues to work normally. Another 600,000 Russians remain eligible to immigrate under Israel’s right-of-return laws, the agency estimates.

Many in Israel see Moscow’s move as retaliation for Israel’s increasingly vocal stance against the invasion.

Then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett condemned the violence in Ukraine but held back from direct criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite pressure from Washington and other Western allies. Instead, Bennett put himself forward as a mediator, talking to both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and making one emergency trip to Moscow and Berlin for talks.

But Lapid, who took over as interim prime minister earlier this month when Israel’s coalition government collapsed, has been more critical. In April, Moscow slammed Lapid, then foreign minister, for overseeing Israel’s vote to kick Russia off the UN Human Rights Council and then making “anti-Russian” comments by condemning the “killing of innocent civilians” in an “unjustified invasion.”

The two countries also engaged in a public spat in May after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed Zelensky’s Jewish faith by claiming that “Hitler also had Jewish blood” – a discredited antisemitic claim.

Lapid called the remarks “both unforgivable and outrageous.” Putin later apologized for Lavrov’s statements in a call with Bennett, according to the prime minister’s office.

Israel’s stance against the war in Ukraine has been complicated from the beginning by its fraught relationship with Russia, which it relies on for two key priorities, allowing Russian Jews to emigrate and its freedom to strike Iranian-backed forces in Syria.

Israel conducts regular airstrikes – officially unacknowledged – against militia sites in Syria. Most of the attacks don’t prompt Russian comment, although Moscow condemned one attack attributed to Israel on the Damascus airport last month. In 2018, Russia accused Israel of shooting down a Russian military plane near the Syrian coast, which resulted in the death of 15 on board.

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The competing needs have prompted a debate here between those who think it is too dangerous to take sides and those, like Lapid, who want the country to fully align with the Western alliance aiding Ukraine. To date, Israel has declined entreaties, most recently from President Biden, to provide weapons to Ukraine.

This is not the first time Russia has seemingly tried to use the Jewish Agency as a pawn in its relations with Israel. In 1996, Moscow temporarily revoked the group’s credentials to work in the country.

Natan Sharansky, an Israeli human rights activist who spend nine years in Soviet prisons as a Jewish “refusenik,” was among those who warned that Israel should not let Russia intimidate it by threatening the agency, a group he helped lead for a decade.

“We must protect our interests in ways that don’t rely on relinquishing our moral positions,” Sharansky wrote Friday in a Facebook post. “The Jewish Agency does very important work in Russia, and I hope it will continue to do so. Nevertheless, it behooves us to remember that Israel knew how to fight for immigration even when the Jewish Agency and all Israeli diplomats were barred from Soviet Russia. “

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