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Russian Government Launches Legal Bid to Close Down Jewish Agency Operations

avatar by Ben Cohen

The entrance to the Jewish Agency’s office in Moscow. Photo: Screenshot.

The Jewish Agency is facing the shuttering of its operations in Russia, following an announcement on Thursday from the Russian Ministry of Justice that it is embarking on legal action to close the organization down.

A spokeswoman for the Basmanny District Court in Moscow told the Interfax news service that the ministry had filed a request to remove the agency from the official state register of legal entities in Russia. The ministry claimed that the agency violated Russian law by allegedly maintaining a database of Russian Jews planning to emigrate to Israel. More than 16,000 Russian Jews have departed for Israel since Moscow launched the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.

The ministry’s lawsuit will be discussed at a hearing on July 28, the court’s spokeswoman, Yekaterina Buravtsova, told Interfax.

A senior Jewish Agency representative meanwhile clarified that the organization would continue working in Russia in the interim. “The Jewish Agency always works in Russia according to the rules and in accordance with the requirements of the authorities,” Yigal Palmor, the head of its international relations department, told the Russian-language Israeli news portal NewsRU. “At the moment we are in dialogue with them in order to continue working as usual.”

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A separate statement from the Jewish Agency’s office in Moscow said that it would “continue to operate in accordance with the requirements of the legislation of the Russian Federation.”

“There have been no requests for immediate termination of activities,” the statement continued.

Some Israeli officials nonetheless expressed anger at the announcement, with Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai declaring that “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,” Shai tweeted. “The Jews of Russia cannot be detached from their historical and emotional connection to the State of Israel.”

Thursday’s announcement follows weeks of speculation over the Jewish Agency’s status in Russia, after Israel media outlets reported on a July 1 letter from the Ministry of Justice accusing the agency of violating Russian law by collecting data on Russian citizens.

This came against the background of increasingly strained relations between Israel and Russia since the invasion of Ukraine — Israeli leaders reacted furiously to comments in May by Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, about Adolf Hitler supposedly having “Jewish blood,” while in April, Israel’s then Foreign Minister Yair Lapid denounced Russia’s “horrific war crimes” committed during its onslaught on the town of Bucha near Kyiv.

Lapid’s elevation to the post of prime minister following the collapse of Naftali Bennett’s government earlier this month has reportedly worried Russian officials. Earlier this week, Israel’s Channel 12 broadcaster quoted Anatoly Viktorov, the Russian Ambassador in Tel Aviv, commenting privately that with Lapid now installed as premier, he anticipated “difficulties” in the two country’s relations.

On Thursday, a spokesperson for the Russian Embassy in Israel denied that Viktorov had made this remark, but nonetheless criticized Israeli policy towards Ukraine.

“We drew attention to the statements of some high-ranking Israeli officials regarding the Russian special operation in Ukraine,” the spokesperson told the Hebrew news outlet Walla, employing the official euphemism used by Russia to describe its war in Ukraine. “We hope that Israel will take a less biased and more balanced approach on this issue. If this happens, it will reflect positively on the good relations that Russia and Israel have built over the past 30 years.”

At least one official in Moscow has denied that the move against the Jewish Agency is politically motivated. Meeting last week with Israel’s envoy to Russia, Alexander Ben Zvi, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov reportedly said that the issue was a legal matter and not a “political move by Russia against Israel.” Bogdanov then promised to “look further” into the dispute, according to a report by Detaly, a Russian-language site based in Israel.

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