ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 61

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Former general Doron Almog takes reins of Jewish Agency as it battles Kremlin

New head visits Jerusalem absorption center, vows to carry on role of assisting ‘every Jew’ who wishes to immigrate, even as Russia seeks to curtail group’s activities

Doron Almog, chair of the Jewish Agency (center, in white shirt), visits new immigrants at Ulpan Etzion, a Hebrew-language immersion center in Jerusalem on his first day on the job, August 21, 2022. (Maxim Dinstein/Jewish Agency)
Doron Almog, chair of the Jewish Agency (center, in white shirt), visits new immigrants at Ulpan Etzion, a Hebrew-language immersion center in Jerusalem on his first day on the job, August 21, 2022. (Maxim Dinstein/Jewish Agency)

Former IDF general Doron Almog began his chairmanship at the Jewish Agency for Israel on Sunday, taking the helm of the organization as it navigates a crisis with the Kremlin that may see its offices shuttered in Russia.

Almog, 71, a past head of the Israel Defense Forces’ Southern Command, dedicated his life after leaving the military to running a widely lauded rehabilitation village in the Negev desert for people with physical and mental disabilities. ADI Negev-Nahalat Eran is named for his son Eran, who had severe autism and physical disabilities before his death in 2007.

On his first day in the position, Almog visited new immigrants at Ulpan Etzion, a leading Hebrew-language immersion center in Jerusalem run by the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental organization that facilitates and encourages Jewish immigration to Israel.

“Under my leadership, the Jewish Agency will continue to assist every Jew who wishes to immigrate to Israel and lead aliyah rescue operations across the globe,” the new agency chair told a group of 180 new immigrants at the language school.

In a statement, the agency said: “Almog will devote his first days in office to becoming thoroughly acquainted with the breadth of Jewish Agency activities in Jewish communities worldwide and throughout Israel.”

Almog was unanimously elected by the 120-member board of governors of the agency in July. He took over on Sunday from acting head Yaakov Hagoel, who served in an interim capacity since former chair Isaac Herzog left the organization to become president of Israel in 2021.

Doron Almog, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, gives his inaugural speech after being elected in Jerusalem on July 10, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He begins his role at a challenging time for the Jewish Agency. The organization is currently battling a petition in Moscow’s Basmany Court by the Russian Justice Ministry, which is calling to shutter its offices in the country.

A Russian court on Friday postponed its verdict in the case for a month in a move Israel hopes will give it more time to reach an agreement with the Russian government. The defense had sought a two-month reprieve to gather evidence that it had not broken any laws.

In somewhat of a blow to the Jewish Agency, the judge rejected a separate request from the defense to move the issue from the court to a mediation process with Russian officials. Israeli officials have been hoping to resolve the dispute outside of the Basmany district court.

In late June, Russia warned the Jewish Agency of its intentions to shutter the organization’s operations, claiming that the group had fallen foul of the country’s laws by improperly keeping records of Russian citizens.

Though Israeli officials initially saw Russia’s moves against the Jewish Agency as a diplomatic maneuver aimed at putting pressure on Jerusalem, they now consider it part of a broader Russian crackdown on all civil society. In recent years, Moscow has forced a number of international organizations to shut down or severely curtail their operations in the country.

A sign outside the entrance of a Jewish Agency for Israel office in Moscow, Russia, July 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Ahead of the trial, Israeli government officials have been working to broker some kind of compromise with Russia that would allow the Jewish Agency to continue operating in the country to at least some extent, believing that once the Russian court system gets involved the matter will become far more complicated to resolve.

The Jewish Agency maintains a staff of roughly 200 people across Russia, who hold cultural and religious activities for the country’s Jewish community in addition to encouraging immigration to Israel.

The Russian government’s recent moves against the Jewish Agency have evoked memories of the Soviet Union’s crackdowns on the organization and on Jewish communal life during the Cold War.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid has warned that Moscow shuttering the Jewish Agency would be “a grave event” with “consequences” for Russian-Israeli ties but later appeared to tone down his rhetoric in favor of quiet diplomacy.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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