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US says it is keeping eye on Israel-Russia spat over Jewish Agency

DC hoping for deal that preserves Jews’ ability to travel to Israel, State Department spokesman says; ex-Moscow chief rabbi warns dispute is fostering fears of rising antisemitism

Elina Tabachenko, a schoolteacher from Ukraine, is reunited with her students in Nes Harim, Israel, on Monday, July 25, 2022. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)
Elina Tabachenko, a schoolteacher from Ukraine, is reunited with her students in Nes Harim, Israel, on Monday, July 25, 2022. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

Moscow and Jerusalem are being encouraged by the US to resolve a dispute over the operations of an Israeli body operating in Russia that encourages immigration to the Jewish state, which has threatened to snowball into a major diplomatic spat.

The US hopes that Israeli and Russian authorities will be able to reach an agreement that “preserves the ability of Jews in Russia to travel to Israel,” a US State Department spokesperson told The Times of Israel on Thursday.

Last week, the Russian justice ministry filed a motion seeking to shutter the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel organization’s offices in the country, claiming that it had violated local laws and was illicitly gathering information on Russian citizens.

Israeli officials and analysts have interpreted the move as a threatening gesture from Russia amid fraying ties over Jerusalem’s support for Ukraine.

The State Department spokesman said Washington was monitoring the situation.

Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata said Thursday that Israel is prepared to address the Russian government’s legal claims against the Jewish Agency and to make whatever adjustments are necessary to allow the organization to continue operating in the country.

Her remarks came following a preliminary court hearing in Moscow on the claims.

Lawyer Andrei Grishayev, foreground left, and his colleagues prepare to attend a preliminary hearing of the Russian claim to liquidate the Jewish Agency for Israel, in the Basmanny District Court in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, July 28, 2022. (AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

“The government of Israel is giving the necessary legal assistance to the Jewish Agency to deal with the claims that were made against it by the Russian justice ministry, and I am sure that the issue will be resolved quickly. Even if this will require some adjustments — we are prepared for it,” Tamano-Shata said.

At the hearing, a judge scheduled arguments to begin on August 19.

According to the Jewish Agency, 16,000 Russian Jews have immigrated to Israel since the invasion began.

Pinchas Goldschmidt, Moscow’s former chief rabbi who has been living in exile in Israel since March, estimated that more than 30,000 other dual passport holders had left Russia for Israel since February 24.

Jews were leaving Russia in high numbers partly over fears of a new “Iron Curtain — that one day (it) will be impossible to leave,” the rabbi said, articulating what he described as a concern among Jews that Putin’s government could ban outbound travel.

He said Moscow’s moves against the Jewish Agency, among other incidents, had fostered “fear of rising anti-Semitism.”

Israel dispatched a delegation to Moscow Wednesday in an effort to convince Russia to allow the agency to continue its work in the country. The group included representatives from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Foreign Ministry, the Justice Ministry and the Absorption Ministry.

Israel has been trying to tamp down tensions with Russia, a major power and key player in the Middle East, whose motives for threatening the Jewish Agency remain unclear. Israel relies on Russian non-interference to carry out air raids against alleged Iranian-linked military sites in Syria.

Russia has been sending mixed messages, with the Kremlin calling the dispute a purely legal matter, while its Foreign Ministry accused Israel of longstanding “unconstructive” and “biased” behavior toward Moscow.

Some have argued that Moscow’s actions against the Jewish Agency were a response to Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s unequivocal, ongoing condemnations of Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

Ukrainians who fled the fighting in Ukraine land at Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv on March 17, 2022. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Jewish Agency officials initially believed the dispute over the group’s operations in Russia could be swiftly resolved with negotiations and compromise when Russian authorities first warned the organization that it could face sanctions earlier this month.

The Jewish Agency later reached out to the Foreign Ministry to intervene on its behalf.

Lapid has warned Moscow that the closure would be a “serious event” threatening bilateral ties.

The Kremlin has said the move should not be “politicized,” calling it a purely legal matter.

The Jewish Agency began working in Russia in 1989.

More than one million of Israel’s 9.4 million residents today have roots in the former Soviet Union.

‘Dark clouds on horizon’

Goldschmidt, who left Russia in March over opposition to the conflict, warned Thursday of “dark clouds on the horizon” for Russian Jews, as ties between the two countries deteriorate over the Ukraine war.

“The Jewish community was pressured… to openly support the war. Our community did not support the war,” he told reporters.

“The situation is worrying” and there are “many dark clouds on the horizon” for Russian Jews, he said, adding that their “security and future… is dependent on Israel-Russia relations.”

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt attends the 2017 Breakthrough Prize at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, December 4, 2016. (Kimberly White/Getty Images North America/ AFP)

“Right now, it would be impossible for me to return,” the Swiss-born rabbi told an online briefing, adding: “If I would have (remained) the chief rabbi of Moscow, I wouldn’t be able to speak out openly without endangering my community.”

“I decided to stay in exile until the political situation will change.”

Some experts have attributed Russia’s threats against the agency as part of an attempt to slow mass emigration.

“If Russia wants to stop the brain drain of its best scientists and creative class, the best way to do this is not by closing the Jewish Agency, but by stopping this war,” Goldschmidt said.

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