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Diaspora minister brands move as 'deplorable and offensive'

Russia officially calls for Jewish Agency operations to be ‘dissolved’ — state media

Moscow’s action against organization that oversees immigration to Israel seen as retaliation for Israel’s stance on Ukraine war; Agency says its activities continuing for now

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

File: A view of the Kremlin with Spasskaya Tower and St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, June 20, 2020 (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
File: A view of the Kremlin with Spasskaya Tower and St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, June 20, 2020 (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Russian authorities officially called Thursday for the “dissolution” of the Jewish Agency’s offices in the country, filing an appeal to that effect with the district court in Moscow, according to a court spokesperson quoted by Russian media outlets.

This represents a significant step forward in Russia’s campaign against the Israeli quasi-governmental organization, which facilitates and encourages Jewish immigration to Israel, or aliyah.

“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 Basmany court in Moscow, 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 this appeal is scheduled to be held on July 28.

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.

Late last month, Russian authorities informed the Jewish Agency in a letter that they planned to take legal action against the group. The Jewish Agency initially sought to address this matter quietly and alone, but has since called in the Israeli Foreign Ministry to intervene on its behalf.

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.

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

Israeli ministers railed against the Russian Justice Ministry’s court filing, 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.

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 in its letter, the organization’s ability to operate there would be severely curtailed if Moscow followed through on its ultimatum.

A source within the organization told The Times of Israel at the time that the demands were not expected to force the Jewish Agency to entirely halt its operations in the country.

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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