'It's a nuisance, but no real threat,' Agency source says

Israeli government intervenes as Moscow tightens screws on Jewish Agency

Source confirms report that Foreign Ministry reached out to Russian officials on behalf of the organization, which faces potential sanctions

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

The Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem, November 29, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)
The Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem, November 29, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

The Foreign Ministry intervened on behalf of the Jewish Agency amid the organization’s ongoing struggles with the Russian government last week, 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. This was the first such direct effort by the government since Moscow alerted the quasi-governmental organization a few weeks ago that it may face sanctions.

The Jewish Agency asked the Israeli government to get involved in the matter, but the Foreign Ministry had also independently come to the conclusion that it should step in, the source said.

Last month, the Jewish Agency, which is responsible for facilitating and encouraging Jewish immigration to Israel, received a letter from Russian authorities in which they made a number of difficult demands — which the organization did not intend to accede to — and threatened legal consequences if those demands were not met.

Though Russia did not explicitly threaten to shut down the Jewish Agency’s activities in the country, the organization’s ability to operate there would be severely curtailed if Moscow followed through on its ultimatum.

Though not unprecedented, the aggressive posturing by the Russian government was seen as highly unusual, coming in apparent retaliation for Israel’s stance on Moscow’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine and for Israel’s ongoing campaign against Iran in Syria, which Russia at times opposes.

According to Walla, Israeli Ambassador to Russia Alexander Ben Zvi met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov about the matter last week.

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 the report.

The Jewish Agency has generally downplayed its concerns about Russia’s threats to curtail its activities in the country, noting that its operations are for now continuing entirely as normal.

A source within the organization also told The Times of Israel that while the new Russian demands may complicate things, they were not expected to force the Jewish Agency to entirely halt its operations in the country.

“It’s a nuisance, but no real threat,” the source said, asking not to be named.

This fresh threat to the Jewish Agency’s ability to operate in Russia evoked memories of the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union, who were barred 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, or aliyah. 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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