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First Moscow court hearing on Jewish Agency’s fate ends without decision

Preliminary meeting lasts roughly an hour with no significant discussion; next hearing, set for August 19, expected to be more decisive unless a deal is reached first

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Lawyer Andrei Grishayev, foreground left, and his colleagues prepare to attend a preliminary hearing of the Russian claim to liquidate the Jewish Agency for Israel, in the Basmanny District Court in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, July 28, 2022. (AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Lawyer Andrei Grishayev, foreground left, and his colleagues prepare to attend a preliminary hearing of the Russian claim to liquidate the Jewish Agency for Israel, in the Basmanny District Court in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, July 28, 2022. (AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

The first hearing in the Russian government’s case against the Jewish Agency ended Thursday without any significant developments, leaving open the possibility for a deal to be reached before the next court session to save the organization’s offices from being closed.

Last week, the Russian justice ministry filed a motion seeking to shutter the quasi-governmental organization’s offices in the country, claiming that the Jewish Agency had violated local laws. Israeli officials and analysts, however, believe that Moscow is trying to send a threatening message to Jerusalem with its efforts against the group, which encourages and facilitates Jewish immigration to Israel, or aliyah.

The first hearing in the case was held in the Basmany district court in Moscow on Thursday morning, lasting roughly an hour. No arguments were heard in the meeting. Instead, the judge scheduled the next hearing for August 19, in which the first significant discussions were expected to be held.

Though Jewish Agency officials remain concerned about the fate of the organization, this indeterminate hearing was seen as preferable to an open-and-shut hearing in which the organization’s offices would be immediately ordered closed, as within the next three weeks some kind of compromise or agreement could be reached that would allow the Jewish Agency to continue operating to at least some degree in the country.

“The Jewish Agency plays a critical function in cultivating Jewish identity and strengthening the connection between Israel and Jewish communities around the world. The critical activities of the [Jewish] Agency in the important Jewish community of Russia will be maintained to ensure its continued prosperity and its connection to Jewish heritage and the State of Israel,” Yaakov Hagoel, acting chairman of the Jewish Agency, said following the hearing.

On Wednesday night, an Israeli government delegation with representatives from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Foreign Ministry, the Justice Ministry and the Absorption Ministry set out for Moscow in an effort to convince Russia to allow the agency to continue its work in the country.

People gather outside the Basmany district court in Moscow ahead of a hearing in the Russian government’s case against the Jewish Agency on July 28, 2022. (Screen capture: TASS)

“The legal delegation, led by the deputy legal adviser of the Foreign Ministry, is in Moscow and will hold meetings with the relevant officials. At the same time, communication through diplomatic channels will continue,” a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said.

“All of this is being done with the goal of helping reach a solution that will allow the Jewish Agency in Russia to continue its important work,” the spokesperson said.

Israel has been trying to tamp down tensions with Russia, a major power and key player in the Middle East, whose motives for threatening the Jewish Agency remain unclear.

Russia has been sending mixed messages, with the Kremlin calling the dispute a purely legal matter, while its Foreign Ministry accused Israel of longstanding “unconstructive” and “biased” behavior toward Moscow.

Some argue that Moscow’s actions against the Jewish Agency were a response to Lapid’s unequivocal, ongoing condemnations of Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

Left, Prime Minister Yair Lapid heads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on July 17, 2022. Right, Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, July 1, 2021. (Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP; Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

In an interview with The Times of Israel on Monday, Moscow-born Israeli politician, journalist and analyst Ksenia Svetlova noted that Russia started threatening the Jewish Agency with sanctions at roughly the same time Lapid took over as premier.

Journalist and political analyst Ksenia Svetlova, formerly an MK from the Zionist Union party. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“It didn’t happen under [former prime minister Naftali] Bennett. It didn’t happen under [former prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. There was something about this government,” said Svetlova, who is a contributor to Times of Israel Hebrew sister site Zman Yisrael.

After Russia invaded Ukraine, Israel sought to walk a tightrope by supporting Kyiv but not antagonizing Moscow. Russia controls Syria’s airspace, where Israel carries out airstrikes against its enemies, mainly Iran and the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah. Russia has also appeared to have grown closer to Iran in recent months, with the Iranians supplying Russia with armed drones for the war.

Last month, Russian authorities told the Jewish Agency that its offices could face sanctions over alleged infringements of local laws. Officials in the organization initially believed this to be a low-level issue that could be resolved with negotiations and compromise.

However, as Moscow continued to escalate the situation, the Jewish Agency reached out to the Foreign Ministry to intervene on its behalf.

Russia’s ultimate aims with its efforts to shutter the Jewish Agency are not entirely clear. Unlike in the past, Moscow has not yet clearly identified what step Israel could take that would prompt it to reverse course or what specific Israeli actions instigated its antagonism.

The dispute has also become fodder in Israeli politics, with opposition leader Netanyahu on Tuesday accusing Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, his political rivals, of mismanaging Israel’s relationship with Russia.

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