Jewish Agency chief: Russian Jews in ‘distress,’ no slowdown in immigration efforts

In first interview after taking over as chairman, Doron Almog tells Kan radio he hopes Moscow’s legal battle against the organization will be resolved soon

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

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)
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)

Newly installed Jewish Agency chairman Doron Almog said Russian Jewry isin “distress,” fearing a return of Soviet-era policies barring immigration to Israel in light of the Russian government’s efforts to shutter his organization in the country.

Almog, in his first interview since taking over as head of the Jewish Agency this week, told the Kan public broadcaster that his organization was working to help the hundreds of thousands of people of Jewish heritage who are eligible for Israeli citizenship.

Last month, the Russian justice ministry began proceedings to end the activities of the Jewish Agency, which encourages and facilitates immigration to Israel and runs educational programs for Russian Jews. An inconclusive hearing was held last week, with another scheduled for next month. Until then, the Jewish Agency’s attorneys and Israeli government representatives were working with Russian officials to reach a compromise that would allow the organization to continue operating in Russia.

“We are speaking with them on a professional level — attorney to attorney — in order to meet their demands,” Almog said.

Almog said his organization was continuing its operations in Russia as normal and remained in constant contact with people on the ground.

“Our educational activities are very, very important. Remember that in Russia there are 600,000 Jews,” he said. (Though there are estimated to be roughly 600,000 Russians eligible for Israeli citizenship — which requires at least one Jewish grandparent — the number of people who would be considered Jews under Orthodox Jewish law is far lower, somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000.)

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

“We have a big call center in Jerusalem. They get a ton of calls. [The Russian Jews] are concerned about everything that’s been happening since the start of the war in Ukraine. We are trying to give some kind of help,” Almog said.

Asked if the Russian government’s moves against the organization were already having an effect on its ability to help Russians move to Israel, Almog said, “We don’t feel that there’s any slowdown in immigration. We are feeling the distress of the Jews who are contacting us. They have a great concern of a return of the days of the Iron Curtain. But our operations continue.”

Almog was referring to the policies of the Soviet Union during the Cold War that blocked the Jewish Agency, prevented Jewish immigration to Israel and generally banned meaningful Jewish communal life in the country.

Asked about the Jewish Agency’s operations in countries that don’t have open ties with Israel or have open hostility with Israel — the Jewish Agency has, for instance, helped Yemeni Jews immigrate to Israel in recent years, despite Sana’a not recognizing Israel — Almog said, “Yes, we have activities like that as well. Israel is duty-bound to every Jew on Earth.”

Almog, a former IDF general and special operations soldier, recalled that he had taken part in a years-long covert operation to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel through Sudan.

“There are things we shouldn’t talk about because it can damage them and this is life-or-death,” he said.

The final group of Jewish immigrants from Yemen arrives in Israel accompanied by an ancient Torah scroll, March 20, 2016. (Arielle Di-Porto/The Jewish Agency for Israel)

In the interview, Almog attempted to ease lingering tensions surrounding the Western Wall, after a group of Orthodox extremists overran a number of bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies at the egalitarian section of the holy site. The incident prompted fierce condemnations from American and international Jewish groups, including the Jewish Agency, whose board passed a resolution requiring the organization to take steps to ensure the security of any Jew who goes to pray there.

“We cannot abandon any Jew or any community because they chose to be Reform or Conservative and other people don’t like that,” Almog said.

He nonetheless downplayed the significance of the event, painting it as not representative of Israeli society at large.

“Israel is a melting pot… The IDF is a melting pot. There are ultra-Orthodox and Druze and Jews and Bedouins and Reform and Conservative. And there are officers — top officers — who are part of the Reform and Conservative movement,” Almog said.

A police officer stands between a group of ultra-Orthodox youths and a bar mitzvah ceremony at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall on June 30, 2022. (Laura Ben-David)

In recent years, the 93-year-old Jewish Agency, established before the State of Israel, has been called anachronistic. Its detractors argue that the government, which is accountable to the public, is better suited to the task of overseeing immigration than the Jewish Agency, which functions as a nonprofit.

Almog maintained that the organization was a necessary bridge between Jews outside of Israel and the Israeli government.

“The State of Israel is a partnership between the state and every Jew in the world,” he posited.

“Remember that when we have elections — and in recent years they’ve been happening too frequently — only Israeli citizens vote, but there are another 7.5 million Jews in the world.”

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