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July 24, 2022 6:23 pm

Closure of Jewish Agency by Russia Would Strain Diplomatic Ties, Israel Says

avatar by Sharon Wrobel

A view shows the entrance to a Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel, in Moscow, Russia July 21, 2022. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina

The closure of the Jewish Agency’s operations in Russia would be a “serious event” straining diplomatic relations between Jerusalem and Moscow, Israel’s Prime Minister Yair Lapid cautioned on Sunday.

Speaking at a discussion with top ministers about the Jewish Agency’s operations in Russia, Lapid emphasized the importance of ties with Russia, which is home to a significant Jewish population and maintains extensive influence in neighboring Syria.

“The large Jewish community in Russia is important and is brought up in all diplomatic discourse with the administration in Moscow,” Lapid said. “Closing the Jewish Agency offices would be a serious event that would affect relations.”

Lapid announced Thursday that a diplomatic delegation of Israeli officials will be sent to Moscow, as Russian legal authorities are set to discuss the closure of the Jewish Agency’s activities there next week. The decision comes after the Russian Ministry of Justice filed a request to outlaw the Jewish Agency from the state register of legal entities, claiming the organization violated Russian law by allegedly maintaining a database of Russian Jews planning to emigrate to Israel.

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Lapid on Sunday instructed the legal delegation to be ready to depart for Moscow following Russian approval for a hearing on the matter. The Israeli delegation will “make every effort to exhaust the legal dialogue alongside advancing the high-level diplomatic dialogue on the issue,” he said.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai declared that Russian Jews are not to be held as “hostages,” and that Israel must act to help the community’s some 600,000 members.

“Tomorrow a delegation of Israeli lawyers will leave in an attempt to reach a solution that will not harm the relations of the two countries,” Shai tweeted.

Sunday’s meeting was attended by a group of ministers including Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and Foreign Ministry Affairs Director General Alon Ushpiz, as well as Jewish Agency Director General Amira Ahronoviz and Yaakov Hagoel, chairman of the World Zionist Organization.

Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Israel has sought to back Kyiv and Western allies without jeopardizing its interests in Moscow, which include the wellbeing of Russia’s Jewish community and Israel’s freedom to act militarily against Iran’s presence in Syria.

On Friday, former Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky urged Russian Jews considering immigration to Israel to do so swiftly.

“In the past days and weeks, Russia, isolated as it is from the free world, strengthened its military and political alliance with Iran and Syria,” the Ukrainian-born, Israeli human rights activist wrote in a Facebook post, alluding to Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s recent diplomatic visit to Tehran. “At the same time, it took steps to stop the operations of the Jewish Agency, the central organization connecting Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora, in its territory.”

Sharansky, who spent years as a prisoner of conscience in the Soviet Union, said Israel should protect its own interests “in ways that don’t rely on relinquishing our moral positions but rather on insisting to uphold them and to join the free world’s fight to stop Russia’s aggression.”

“The Jewish Agency does very important work in Russia, and I hope it will continue to do so,” he stated. “Nevertheless, it behoves us to remember that Israel knew how to fight for immigration even when the Jewish Agency and all Israeli diplomats were barred from Soviet Russia, just as it knew how to defend its security interests successfully even when all the best Soviet weapons were delivered not to us but to our enemies.”

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