Russian court postpones verdict in Jewish Agency case by 30 days

Defense asks for additional time to gather evidence, indicating that the Israel-immigration organization hasn’t violated any laws

The Jewish Agency's lawyer, Andrei Grishayev, foreground right, and his colleagues speak to journalists after attending a hearing in the trial of the Russian Justice Ministry's request to shutter the organization in the Basmany District Court in Moscow, Russia, on August 19, 2022. (AP Photo)
The Jewish Agency's lawyer, Andrei Grishayev, foreground right, and his colleagues speak to journalists after attending a hearing in the trial of the Russian Justice Ministry's request to shutter the organization in the Basmany District Court in Moscow, Russia, on August 19, 2022. (AP Photo)

A Russian court on Friday postponed its verdict in the country’s case against the Jewish Agency for a month in a move Israel hopes will give it more time to reach an agreement with Moscow and prevent the shuttering of the agency’s offices in Russia, Russian media reported.

During the hearing in Moscow’s Basmany Court on Friday, Jewish Agency lawyers asked the judge for additional time to gather new evidence that could prove that it hadn’t violated any laws. It also said the organization has already taken steps to change its activities within Russia in accordance with requirements put forth by the Russian justice ministry, according to the reports.

The defense initially asked for a two-month deferral, which the representatives from the Russian justice ministry opposed. The judge eventually agreed to a 30-day postponement.

In somewhat of a blow to the Jewish Agency, the judge also rejected a separate request from the defense to move the issue from the court to a mediation process with Russian officials. Israeli officials have been hoping to resolve the dispute outside of the Basmany district court.

Nevertheless, attorney Andrei Grishayev, who is representing the quasi-governmental organization in the trial, said he hoped that the postponement will allow both sides to reach an agreement and settle the issue outside of the court.

“I hope things work out, but it’s out of our control,” he told local media outside the courthouse.

Ahead of Friday’s trial, a source familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel that there was no way to avoid the hearing but that Israel hoped that the tribunal would give the parties more time to reach an agreement before rendering a decision to halt or curtail the Jewish Agency’s activities.

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

In late June, Russia warned the Jewish Agency of its intentions to shutter the organization’s operations — encouraging and facilitating Jewish immigration to Israel — claiming that the group had fallen foul of the country’s laws by improperly keeping records of Russian citizens.

The petition filed against the Jewish Agency was filed by Russia’s justice ministry last month. A first hearing was held on July 28, ending in roughly an hour with just a date set for Friday’s hearing.

Though Israeli officials initially saw Russia’s moves against the Jewish Agency as a diplomatic maneuver aimed at putting pressure on Jerusalem, they now consider it part of a broader Russian crackdown on all civil society. In recent years, Moscow has forced a number of international organizations to shut down or severely curtail their operations in the country.

Ahead of the trial, Israeli government officials have been working to broker some kind of compromise with Russia that would allow the Jewish Agency to continue operating in the country to at least some extent, believing that once the Russian court system gets involved the matter will become far more complicated to resolve.

Last Tuesday, President Isaac Herzog raised the issue directly with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and the two agreed to continue discussing the matter, their offices said.

According to the Walla news site, a day after Herzog’s call, Israel National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata also spoke about the issue with his Russian counterpart.

In addition, an Israeli government delegation of legal experts has been working with the Jewish Agency and speaking with Russian officials ahead of the trial.

People gather outside the Basmany district court in Moscow ahead of a hearing in the Russian government’s case against the Jewish Agency on July 28, 2022. (Screen capture: TASS)

The Jewish Agency, for its part, has been continuing with its preparations as normal, with its Russian attorneys readying for the court hearings.

“We’re not informed of the content of the talks between the Prime Minister’s Office and their Russian counterparts,” a Jewish Agency official said on Wednesday.

The official said the Jewish Agency does not know how the trial will go, but anticipates that it will result in either the organization reducing its activities in Russia or being forced to shut down entirely.

“We’re examining all the options for a rainy day,” the Jewish Agency official told The Times of Israel last week, speaking on condition of anonymity. But he said the organization did not anticipate an imminent decision.

“The trial could go both ways: shutdown, or staying under tightened regulation,” he said. “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.

The Russian government’s recent moves against the Jewish Agency have evoked memories of the Soviet Union’s own crackdowns on the organization and on Jewish communal life during the Cold War.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid has warned that Moscow shuttering the Jewish Agency would be “a grave event” with “consequences” for Russian-Israeli ties, but later appeared to tone down his rhetoric in favor of quiet diplomacy.

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