The future of the Jewish Agency is at the heart of the relationship between Israel and Russia

Are Russian Jews paying the price for Israel’s position vis-à-vis Moscow in Putin’s war in Ukraine? In any case, this is what the legal saga around the Moscow-based Jewish Agency, which has been threatened with dissolution by the Russian authorities since July 21, suggests.

Accused of organizing aliyah – Jewish immigration to Israel – this semi-official branch of the Israeli government has been accused “illegal collection of information about Russian citizens”. After the preliminary hearing on July 28, the trial to order the closure of the Russian agency’s offices was held on Monday, September 19 at the Moscow court in the Basmanny district.

In a telephone conversation on August 9, Vladimir Putin assured his Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog that it was a question. “purely legal” and he didn’t want to “Israel will be punished for its growing support for Ukraine”. But for David Khalfa, associate researcher at the Observatory of North Africa and the Middle East at the Jean-Jaurès Foundation, this legal approach still represents “a way for the Russian authorities to put pressure on Israel, which sees it as a punishment after the evolution of its position in the conflict in Ukraine”.

“Inexcusable and scandalous” comments

There are Russian-Israeli relations “always ambivalent”, determined the researcher, but a certain cooling began after the criticisms of the Prime Minister Yaïr Lapid. In April, when he assumed the post of Minister for Foreign Affairs, the latter strongly condemned the “war crime” what consists of “killing civilians in the suburb of Boutcha”.

Reacting to comments by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who, in May, rejected Volodymyr Zelensky’s Jewish faith on the grounds that “Hitler also had Jewish blood”he was quick to criticize the words “inexcusable and scandalous”. On July 26, Yair Lapid’s government announced financial support of 2.5 million shekels (€750,000) for nine civil society organizations in Ukraine.

These statements are understood in Moscow as “an alignment of Israel in Euro-Atlantic positions”, David Khalfa explains, and targeting the Jewish Agency thus constitutes a “a way for the Russian government to show its dissatisfaction with the critical line adopted by the current Israeli government towards Moscow”. Moreover, this legal offensive is part of a more general context of campaigns against international organizations and NGOs in Russia, which are accused of “foreign agents”.

“Bad loss” for Russia

In July, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow left Russia after refusing a request from the Russian authorities for public support for the invasion of Ukraine. “Russia has done more to promote immigration to Israel in the last few months than the Jewish Agency has done in the last ten years,” he later said in a tweet.

And, in fact, according to Israeli government figures, 20,246 Russians immigrated to Israel between January and July 2022, including 700 in February and more than 3,000 in March, fleeing the increasingly oppressive Kremlin policies. In comparison, only 15,930 Russians left Russia for Israel in all of 2019. “dead loss” for Russia, according to David Khalfa, such that this highly educated population generally works in key sectors of the Russian economy.

Fear of Russia’s ban on Israeli immigration

Apart from the retaliation vis-à-vis Israel’s position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, David Khalfa believes that Moscow’s targeting of the Jewish Agency shows “the desire to weaken Yaïr Lapid by tarnishing the image of the responsible head of government and skilled diplomat that he seeks to consolidate as the November elections approach”.

But above all, he continued, “The Russians seek to assess Israel as the IDF attacks (Israeli Army, Editor’s Note) of pro-Iranian targets (Iran being an ally of the Russians) in Syria has increased in recent months”. A bet for the Russians, who have no interest in opening a “On the front of Syria with the powerful Israeli air force as the situation in Ukraine breaks down”, and as Moscow seeks to consolidate its influence in the Middle East.

While anti-Semitism remains widespread in Russia – a Levada Center poll from December 2021 showed that only 11% of respondents would like to have a Jew as a close friend – the new director of the Jewish Agency, Doron Almog, was worried, at first. in September in the state of “grief” of the Russian Jewish community, who feared a return to Soviet policies that prohibited immigration to Israel.

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