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Lapid warns Russia: Jewish Agency closure would be ‘grave event’ with impact on ties

PM plans to send delegation to Moscow this week to try to convince Russian authorities to cease their moves against the quasi-governmental Israeli immigration organization

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

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid holds a cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on July 24, 2022. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid holds a cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on July 24, 2022. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Prime Minister Yair Lapid warned Russia on Sunday against shuttering the offices of the Jewish Agency in the country, saying such steps would be a “grave event” that would negatively affect the diplomatic ties between Jerusalem and Moscow.

Lapid’s overt warning to Moscow came in response to recent steps by Russian authorities against the quasi-governmental Israeli organization, which is tasked with facilitating and encouraging Jewish immigration to Israel. Last week, the Russian Justice Ministry officially called for the “dissolution” of the Jewish Agency’s activities in Russia, claiming the organization had violated a number of local laws.

Israel, however, believes that these steps are not due to legal issues but rather are a form of retaliation by Moscow against Jerusalem for its support of Ukraine.

In recent weeks the Jewish Agency has turned to the Foreign Ministry for help, getting the Israeli ambassador to Russia to advocate on its behalf.

Last week, Lapid, who also serves as foreign minister, announced that his office would send a delegation to Moscow this week to speak with Russian officials about the matter and on Sunday, members of the delegation met in the Prime Minister’s Office for a situational assessment before heading out, potentially on Monday.

“Prime Minister Lapid said in the meeting that ties with Russia are important to Israel. The Jewish community in Russia is large and important and comes up in every diplomatic discussion with the administration in Moscow,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

“Closing the Jewish Agency’s offices would be a grave event, which will have consequences on those ties,” the statement read.

The PMO said the delegation would be ready to set out for Moscow as soon as “it receives Russian approval for the talks.”

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

The delegation will include representatives from the Prime Minister’s Office, the National Security Council, Foreign Ministry, Justice Ministry, and Immigration and Absorption Ministry and will be overseen by Foreign Ministry Director General Alon Ushpiz

The meeting on Sunday was attended by representatives from all of those offices, including Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, as well as two ministers who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union, Moldova-born Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Ukraine-born Construction Minister Zeev Elkin.

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 organization unless it accepted a number of difficult demands — which it did not intend to accede to.

Last 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 Thursday.

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.

A shipment of protective equipment for Ukraine is loaded onto a flight from Israel, July 14, 2022. (Defense Ministry)

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 Russia’s 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.

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.

Participants in the Soviet Jewry rally hold signs high as they march through a Washington street, December 6, 1987 (AP Photo/Ira Schwarz)

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 of Ukraine began in late February.

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