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Russia moves to shut agency handling immigration to Israel amid Ukraine rift

“The attempt to punish the Jewish Agency for Israel’s stance on the war is deplorable and offensive,” said Israel’s diaspora affairs minister.
Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar
The chief rabbi of Russia, Berel Lazar, during the lighting of Hanukkah candles on Revolution Square in Moscow in December 2016.Kirill Kallinikov / Sputnik via AP file

Russia has threatened to shut down a major Jewish agency that promotes immigration to Israel amid tensions between the two nations over the invasion of Ukraine.   

The Justice Ministry seeks to liquidate the country’s branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel, according to a notice from Moscow’s Basmanny district court, where the case will be heard Thursday.

The court’s website does not say what laws the nonprofit agency had broken, and Russia’s Justice Ministry, which filed for its dissolution on July 15, did not respond to a request for comment. 

Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov said the dissolution was related to a breach of “compliance with Russian legislation.” He refused to give further details at a news conference Friday. 

Acting Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a statement Thursday that a delegation with representatives from his office and several other ministries would travel to Russia for talks ahead of the hearing about the agency, which operates in coordination with his government.

Lapid accused Russia of carrying out war crimes in Ukraine when he was foreign minister in April.

Established in 1929, the Jewish Agency, or Sochnut, was instrumental in the formation of the state of Israel in 1948.  

It was banned by the Soviet Union, where state-sanctioned antisemitism barred Jews from many jobs and schools. Yuri Kanner, the president of the Russian Jewish Congress, told NBC News on Friday that an office opened in Russia shortly after the Soviet bloc collapsed in 1989.

Since then, it has helped to advance Israel’s Law of Return, which states that any Jewish person, or a person with one or more Jewish grandparents, has the right to settle in Israel and obtain citizenship. Hundreds of thousands of people have relocated from Russia.  

A welcoming committee presents Soviet Jews with flowers upon their arrival at Lod Airport on Jan 17, 1972, in Tel Aviv.
A welcoming committee presents Soviet Jews with flowers upon their arrival at Lod Airport on Jan 17, 1972, in Tel Aviv. Bettmann Archive

“This is an old and reputable institution,” Kanner said, adding that it had never been embroiled in any scandals.

NBC News has asked the agency for comment.

Some, including Nachman Shai, Israel’s diaspora affairs minister, said the move was punishment for Israel’s stance on the war in Ukraine.  

“Russian Jews will not be held hostage for the war in Ukraine,” he tweeted Thursday. “The attempt to punish the Jewish Agency for Israel’s stance on the war is deplorable and offensive.”

Yossi Mekelberg, a professor who is an associate fellow at the London think tank Chatham House, described the move as “a warning shot” from Russian President Vladimir Putin “to send a message to Israel” about Ukraine.    

“From the beginning, Israel tried to take a line which was almost impossible,” he said. 

Relations deteriorated further in May after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed that Adolf Hitler was Jewish when he was asked about claims that Russia was trying to “denazify” Ukraine. At the time, Lapid called Lavrov’s statement “unforgivable and scandalous and a horrible historical error.”

Given close military collaboration between Russia and Israel in the Middle East, especially in Syria, Mekelberg said, Israel “didn’t want to attack Russia directly, criticize too much or outrightly support Ukraine.”

“At the same time, it saw reasons to support Ukraine and NATO and the United States, its closest ally,” he said. 

As a result, he said, Israel was “stuck in the middle, and it was never going to work, not with something so big.”

Kanner, of the Russian Jewish Congress the court’s decision “will be really important for Russian-Israeli relations.”  

Inside Russia, he said, the case will “certainly spur up aliyah,” or repatriation of Jewish people to Israel.  

“I have been observing this for a long time,” he said. “Usually waves of aliyah are associated with some form of bad news.”