Israel to send team to Moscow as Russia threatens to shutter Jewish Agency offices

Lapid says interministerial delegation will head to Russia next week to ensure that organization’s ‘important work’ helping Jews immigrate is not impeded

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

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)
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)

Israel will send a delegation to Moscow next week to meet with Russian officials over the Kremlin’s intention to shut down the Jewish Agency in the country, the Prime Minister’s Office said Thursday.

Earlier in the day, the Russian justice ministry filed an appeal with a Moscow district court calling for the “dissolution” of the Jewish Agency’s operations in the country.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid held a “situational assessment” with officials from the Foreign Ministry and the National Security Council about the matter on Thursday, his office said.

“During this situational assessment, it was decided to dispatch a delegation [with representatives from] the Prime Minister’s Office, Foreign Ministry, Justice Ministry and Immigration and Absorption Ministry next week in order to ensure the continued operations of the Jewish Agency in Russia,” the PMO said in a statement.

A follow-up meeting will be held about the matter on Sunday, Lapid’s office added.

“The Jewish community in Russia is deeply connected to Israel and its importance comes up in every diplomatic conversation with the Russian leadership. We will continue to act through diplomatic channels so the important work of the Jewish Agency is not impeded,” Lapid said.

Late last month, Russian authorities informed the Jewish Agency, which facilitates and encourages Jewish immigration to Israel, that they planned to take legal action against the quasi-governmental organization unless it accepted a number of difficult demands — which it did not intend to accede to.

On Thursday, this shifted from words and warnings to practical steps, as the local justice ministry filed its appeal to the Basmanny court in Moscow.

“The court received a lawsuit filed by the main department of the Ministry of Justice in Moscow requesting the dissolution of the… Jewish Agency,” the court said in a statement that was carried by the Russian outlet RIA.

Ekaterina Buravtsova, a spokeswoman for the court, was quoted by Russian agencies saying the request was made after legal violations, without providing further details, according to the Interfax news agency.

The preliminary hearing of the appeal is scheduled to be held on July 28.

View of the Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem, November 29, 2016. Photo (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The aggressive posturing by the Russian government is seen as highly unusual, coming in apparent retaliation for Israel’s stance on Moscow’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine, as well as for Israel’s ongoing campaign against Iran in Syria, which Russia at times opposes.

Apparently seeking to downplay concerns, the Jewish Agency said in a statement that this was only a “preliminary hearing” and a “continuation of the legal process” that was already underway.

“As we have previously stated, we are not making any comment during the course of the legal proceedings,” the organization said.

A source within the organization also told The Times of Israel earlier this month that the new Russian demands were not expected to force the Jewish Agency to entirely halt its operations in the country and were more of a “nuisance” than a legitimate threat to its activities.

The Jewish Agency has maintained throughout the Russian campaign against it that it is continuing to operate as normal in Russia for the time being.

Israeli ministers railed against the Russian justice ministry’s court filing on Thursday, with one saying explicitly that it was tied to Israel’s support of Ukraine.

“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,” said Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai in a statement.

“The Jews of Russia cannot be detached from their historical and emotional connection to the State of Israel,” he said.

Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata said she was working with Prime Minister Yair Lapid and the Foreign Ministry to address the matter.

“There is no justifiable reason for halting the [Jewish] Agency’s operations, and there are therefore diplomatic efforts underway to clarify the situation and resolve the matter accordingly,” Tamano-Shata said.

“As we have known how to cooperate with Russian authorities for many decades, I have no doubt that we will find appropriate solutions,” she added.

Last week, the Foreign Ministry began officially intervening on behalf of the Jewish Agency, having Israeli Ambassador to Russia Alexander Ben Zvi speak with the country’s deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, about the issue, a source familiar with the matter said Thursday.

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was confirming a report by the Walla news site about the Israeli government intervention.

In the meeting, Bogdanov denied that the steps against the Jewish Agency were a form of diplomatic retaliation and said he would look into the issue, which Israeli officials saw as a potentially positive development though they remained skeptical, according to that report.

The saga has evoked memories of the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union, who were barred for many years from immigrating to Israel and from openly practicing their faith.

The Jewish Agency, an unofficial arm of the Israeli government, is tasked with overseeing and encouraging immigration to Israel. People looking to immigrate to Israel must submit applications through the Jewish Agency. The organization also runs educational programs and a host of other activities.

To facilitate these efforts, the organization maintains offices in many countries and cities around the world, including Moscow. In recent years, tens of thousands of Russian citizens have immigrated to Israel, with roughly 10,000 arriving just since the Russian invasion began in late February.

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