Since 1989, Jewish institutions have been critical in helping more than 238,000 Jews emigrate from Russia. The group has also facilitated a surge of 16,000 migrants since the start of the war in Ukraine, and another 37,000 who have entered Israel on tourist visas and are seeking residency status or awaiting the end of the war.
Israel backs Ukraine but wary of angering Russia
Israel said it was preparing a series of retaliatory actions it would consider if Russia enforces the ban, although officials did not specify what those actions would be.
“We are fighting here. This is not the closing of McDonald’s,” a senior Israeli official told the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth. “We’re not going to take it silently.”
Russia’s justice ministry, which made the request to shut down the agency, did not specify its problems with the group, other than to say that it “conducted its activities in violation of Russian law.”
A Jewish agency official said the Russians appeared to characterize the agency’s routine collection of migrants’ personal data as a violation of privacy laws, describing the accusation as a blatant excuse.
“It’s routine paperwork. No one hides it. It’s what Jewish institutions do all the time,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive case. “It’s ridiculous. It shows we have ulterior motives.”
The official speculated that the highly unusual move could be due to a variety of reasons: Russia’s broader crackdown on foreign-affiliated groups, retaliation for Israel’s support of Ukraine, and even expanded “extortion” targeting Jewish institutions. past. The official said Russian officials had harassed field officials at Jewish agencies to show “us who’s the boss” before the case was resolved.
It could also be a political rivalry within Russia, where one part of the government is using Jewish institutions as political pawns to challenge another.
He said Russia has not formally asked it to scale back operations and the group continues to work as normal. The agency estimates that another 600,000 Russians are still eligible to immigrate under Israel’s right of return law.
Many in Israel see Moscow’s move as retaliation for Israel’s growing opposition to the invasion.
Then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett condemned the violence in Ukraine but did not directly criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite pressure from Washington and other Western allies. Instead, Bennett used himself as a mediator, speaking with Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and rushing to Moscow and Berlin for talks.
But Lapid, who took over as interim prime minister when Israel’s coalition government collapsed earlier this month, was more critical. In April, Moscow slammed then-Foreign Minister Lapid for overseeing Israel’s vote to expel Russia from the UN Human Rights Council before making “anti-Russian” rhetoric denouncing the “killing of innocent civilians” in an “unjustified invasion.”
The two countries also went public in May after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that “Hitler also had Jewish blood” (a notoriously anti-Semitic claim) dismissing Zelensky’s Jewish beliefs quarrel.
Lapid called the remarks “both inexcusable and outrageous.” Putin later apologized for Lavrov’s remarks in a phone call with Bennett, according to the prime minister’s office.
Israel’s stance against the Ukrainian war has been complicated from the start by its tensions with Russia, and it rests on two key priorities: allowing Russian Jews to emigrate and its freedom to strike Iranian-backed Syrian forces.
Israel conducts regular airstrikes on Syrian militia bases – not officially recognized. While Moscow condemned an Israeli attack at Damascus airport last month, most of the attacks did not elicit comments from Russia. In 2018, Russia accused Israel of shooting down a Russian military plane off the coast of Syria, killing 15 people on board.
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The competing demands have sparked a debate with both sides arguing that taking sides is too dangerous, while Lapid and others want the country to align fully with the Western coalition helping Ukraine. Israel has so far rejected requests to supply Ukraine with weapons, the most recent request being that of President Biden.
This does not appear to be the first time Russia has attempted to use Jewish institutions as pawns in its relations with Israel. In 1996, Moscow temporarily suspended the organization’s eligibility to work in the country.
Israeli human rights activist Natan Sharansky, who served nine years in a Soviet prison as a Jewish “denier”, warned Israel should not allow Russia to intimidate the agency by threatening it, and he helped lead the the agency for ten years.
“We must protect our interests in a way that does not depend on giving up our moral stance,” Sharansky wrote in a Facebook post on Friday. “Jewish institutions have done very important work in Russia and I hope it will continue to do so. Still, we should remember that Israel knows how to win over immigrants even if Jewish institutions and all Israeli diplomats are banned from entering Soviet Russia. “