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Jewish Agency trial in Moscow postponed again, leaving group’s fate unclear

After month-long delay, hearing in the Russian justice ministry’s case against the Israel immigration group ends with another postponement

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

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

The Russian government’s trial against the Jewish Agency was postponed yet again on Monday, following a month-long delay, with the fate of the Israeli quasi-governmental organization hanging in the balance.

The Moscow court will next hear the case on October 19.

Since June, when Russia’s justice ministry warned of its intention to shutter the Jewish Agency — which encourages and facilitates Jewish immigration to Israel — representatives from the organization and Israeli officials have attempted to broker some kind of compromise with the Russian government that would allow the agency to continue operating in the country at least to some degree.

Those negotiations have yet to yield a definitive result, according to a Jewish Agency source, leaving the organization without a clear expectation of how the case will play out.

“We have no idea, since the Russian side gave no indication as to their intentions,” the Jewish Agency official told The Times of Israel on Monday ahead of the hearing.

When Moscow first filed to have the organization’s activities halted, Israeli officials saw it as an attempt to apply pressure on Israel and to express dissatisfaction with Israel’s support for Ukraine and ongoing air campaign against Iran in Syria, which the Russian military opposes. Prime Minister Yair Lapid warned that Russia shuttering the Jewish Agency would be “a grave event” with “consequences” for Russian-Israeli ties.

In recent weeks, however, Russian and Israeli officials have sought to ease tensions, with both sides insisting it was not a diplomatic maneuver by Russia but a domestic legal issue that could be dealt with through the courts.

“They keep going back to this mantra, ‘Don’t worry, it’s just a technical legal issue that needs to be dealt with legally.’ And that’s all. But what does that mean? It’s unclear,” the Jewish Agency official said.

Though the trial officially opened in July, it has not progressed significantly over the past two months, with all of the hearings ending in postponements.

Until a verdict is reached, the Jewish Agency has been permitted to continue its operations in Russia as normal.

However, the group has been preparing for the possibility of having to either halt its operations entirely or significantly scale them back.

“We’re examining all the options for a rainy day,” the Jewish Agency official told The Times of Israel earlier this summer. “The trial could go both ways: shutdown, or staying under tightened regulation. But we’re certainly not going to leave if we can help it.”

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.

For the past month and a half, the Jewish Agency has been exploring different ways of ensuring that it can continue to provide its services to the Russian Jewish community regardless of how the court rules.

“The idea is to maintain as much as we can all existing activities, and we’re examining all possible ways and platforms to do that should circumstances force us to leave Russia,” the official said.

The official refused to specify what potential configurations the organization was considering. They would likely include some mix of moving certain operations online, performing others through new organizations, funding local initiatives from afar, and stepping up services in neighboring countries.

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.

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