Moscow’s move to close the Jewish Agency warns Russian Jews

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RIGA, Latvia – Russia’s threat to close a prominent Jewish organization has raised fears among Jews planning to leave The country because of its war against Ukraine, while the gulf between Russia and Israel deepens.

A Moscow court on Thursday held a preliminary hearing on the Justice Ministry’s appeal to abolish the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency of 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, founded more than 90 years ago and affiliated with the Israeli government, helps Jewish families immigrate to Israel, including organizing travel and paying for flights.

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 unrest over President Vladimir Putin’s brutal campaign to “discredit” Ukraine and its Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky. to expel. Another 34,000 traveled to Israel as tourists.

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

“We didn’t plan to leave before,” she said in a telephone interview, asking not to be identified except by her first name for fear of reprisals by authorities in Moscow. When the war broke out, we decided very quickly.” Her main priority was to get her 18-year-old son out of the country before he could They are recruited.

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

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

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increasing tension Between Russia and Israel is the result of several recent scandals, including anti-Semitic statements by Russian government officials and the forced exile of Moscow’s chief rabbi. Meanwhile, Moscow is outraged by the words of Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who condemned the invasion and accused Russia of “war crimes”.

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt fled Moscow after refusing to lend support to the war, then resigned as chief rabbi earlier this month, saying that if he had remained in office he would have threatened Moscow’s Jewish community.

“Russia has encouraged immigration to Israel in recent months more than the Jewish Agency has done in the past 10 years,” he said in a recent tweet.

Israel’s immigration minister, Panina Tamanu Shata, said that some 600,000 Russians are eligible to immigrate to Israel. Israel also accepts the children and grandchildren of non-Jews.

According to the Russian Jewish Council, there are approximately 180,000 Jews in Russia, 70 percent of whom live in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and many of whom are well educated and work in specialized fields such as information technology. The departure of thousands of them helped fuel a massive Russian brain drain, one of the hidden costs of Putin’s invasion that could reverberate for years.

Natalia believes that the move to close the Jewish Agency “is due to brain drain, or perhaps some form of influence. They don’t want people to leave, and recently we’ve seen a lot of skilled and experienced IT professionals leave – and not just in the IT field. It’s clear that Russia doesn’t like that.”

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

“In the Soviet Union it was difficult for Jews to enter universities and get good jobs, and many had to change their surname to avoid problems. I think my grandfather was only able to study at the university because he was right before the war and the country needed doctors.” There has always been anti-Semitism 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 leader of the opposition. He donated a month’s salary to help build the Jewish Museum and Center for Tolerance in Moscow, which was financed by the oligarchs and opened in 2012.

But anti-Semitism is still common in Russia. A public opinion poll conducted in December 2021 by the Levada Center, a respected independent polling agency, showed that only 11 percent of Russians surveyed said they wanted a Jew as a close friend have; Only 7 percent would welcome one into the business; And only 27% thought that Jews should be allowed to live in Russia.

Some fear that rising Russian nationalism, hatred of Zelensky and tensions between Russia and Israel will fuel growing hostility toward 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 in public.

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

Lavrov, who criticized Zelensky in May, said Hitler “also had Jewish blood”, sparking outrage in Israel and abroad. Medvedev wrote an article in Kommersant newspaper last year attacking Zelensky with violent anti-Semitic terms.

The Kremlin said on Tuesday that the move to close the agency was related to violations of Russian law and “should not be politicized or expand the full scope of relations between Russia and Israel.” But Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on state television that day criticized Israel’s stance on the war in Ukraine, calling it biased, “completely incomprehensible and foreign to us.”

Lapid said on Tuesday that Israel is ready for dialogue with Russia if there are legal issues that need to be resolved. Russian media reported that a delegation sent to Moscow to try to resolve the issue had been delayed for several days, but had traveled for talks on Thursday.

The Russian Justice Ministry has previously moved quickly to shut down prominent foreign organizations and domestic rights groups, and its move against the Jewish Agency may be just the beginning. According to the “Jerusalem Post”, a number of other Jewish organizations in Russia that depend on funds from Israel or the United States received letters from the authorities last week warning that they could be declared “foreign agents”, indicating that the government had come to meet them.

Steve Hendricks in Jerusalem and Marie Ilyushina in Riga contributed to this report.

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