Israel Sending Delegation To Russia In Wake Of Jewish Agency Crisis

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaks during a cabinet meeting at the prime minster's office in Jerusalem, Sunday, July 17, 2022. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

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Prime Minister Yair Lapid said on Thursday that Israel is sending a delegation to Russia next week in order “to ensure the continued operations of the Jewish Agency in Russia.”

The decision was made following a situational assessment held by Lapid with officials from the Foreign Ministry and the National Security Council. Lapid also spoke with Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata. Another meeting on the issue will be held in the Prime Minister’s Office on Sunday.

“The Jewish community in Russia is deeply connected with Israel,” Lapid stated. “Its importance arises in every diplomatic discussion with the Russian leadership. We will continue to act through diplomatic channels so that the Jewish Agency’s important activities can continue.”

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai said on Thursday: “Russian Jews will not be held hostage by the war in Ukraine. The attempt to punish the Jewish Agency for Israel’s stance on the war is deplorable and offensive. Russian Jews cannot be severed from their historical and emotional connection to the State of Israel.”

Lapid’s announcement came after a spokeswoman for a Moscow District Court was quoted as saying that Russia’s Justice Ministry aims to “shut down” the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency. A court hearing in the case is scheduled for July 28.

The Jewish Agency is a nonprofit that works closely with the Israeli government to bring Jewish immigrants from around the world to Israel. Under the country’s law of return, anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent is automatically eligible for Israeli citizenship.

The Jewish Agency has been active in Russia since 1989, according to the Interfax report. Well over 1 million immigrants have come to Israel from the former Soviet Union, and an estimated 150,000 Jews still live in Russia.

According to the agency, immigration has picked up since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, with 17,000 Russians taking Israeli citizenship and as many as 40,000 others coming to Israel and expected to apply. In comparison, some 7,700 Russian Jews immigrated to Israel last year.

Lapid’s office said the delegation heading to Russia would include representatives from his office, the Foreign Ministry and other government ministries.

A Jewish Agency official said that Russia has accused the nonprofit of violating its privacy laws by collecting personal information of people who are interested in immigrating to Israel. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the pending court case, said it was not clear why Russia was cracking down on what he described as routine paperwork.

Russia and Israel have a close, if sometimes uneasy, relationship in Syria. Their two air forces maintain close communications to prevent clashes in Syrian skies — despite being on different sides of the civil war there. Russia has provided support to Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Israel often strikes what it says are enemy Iranian and Hezbollah targets aligned with Assad.

Lapid, who became Israel’s interim prime minister this month after spending the past year as foreign minister, has been an outspoken critic of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Still, Israel has refrained from joining the United States and other Western countries in providing arms to Ukraine, apparently due to the sensitivities in Syria and concerns for the safety of Russia’s Jewish community.

Lapid’s predecessor, Naftali Bennett, was much more muted in his criticism of Russia and briefly attempted to serve as a mediator in the war.

(YWN Israel Desk – Jerusalem & AP)