Threats to shut down Russia’s Jewish Agency are setting off alarm bells among the Jewish community.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent threat to shut down the Jewish Agency in Russia is being perceived by Israeli officials and analysts as a threat to Israel and possibly to Israel-Russia ties.
A nonprofit mainly tasked with moving Jews to the Jewish state and maintaining Jewish communal life in communities outside Israel, the Jewish Agency was banned from the former Soviet Union. It started operating in the region in the late 1980’s and helped about a million Jews get to Israel through the 1990’s.
Today, around 180,000 Jews live in Russia. If the Jewish Agency shuts down, community members wishing to leave the country may face trouble.
The Kremlin’s unexpected announcement follows a series of incidents that have unfolded in recent months possibly indicating shifting tones between Moscow and Jerusalem.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Israel’s stance was cautious, opaque and somewhat neutral despite internal pressure from 76% of Israelis who support Ukraine. Israel withheld condemnation of Russia at the UNSC and has consistently denied direct and indirect supply of Israeli-made weapons to Ukraine.
In April, Israel’s then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett offered to mediate Ukraine-Russia negotiations to no avail.
That guarded position is in deference to Russia’s security guarantees for Israel in the region as the U.S. pulls back from the Middle East, and Iran and Iran-proxies threaten Israel.
According to an April Atlantic Council report, Israel has carried out more than 400 airstrikes since 2017 against Iran and Iranian allies in Syria and the region with Russia’s consent. Russia entered the Middle Eastern arena in 2015 with an incursion into Syria.
In June, Russia issued an unprecedented public condemnation of Israel citing an Israeli airstrike on Damascus airport that damaged the runway and airport buildings. A week later, in another unparalleled move, Moscow announced it was drafting a UN Security Council resolution proposal condemning Israel for the airport strike.
“Yes, these are new developments. My colleagues and I are watching them very closely,” Russia analyst Sophie Kobzantsev of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies reports.
Motives for Moscow’s proposal to stymie Jewish Agency activity in Russia may include retribution for then-Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s April characterization of Russian “war crimes” in Ukraine. Lapid has since taken over as Israel’s interim prime minister.
Russia may also be using U.S.-ally Israel as a pawn for retaliation against Western implemented sanctions.
“Israel should not be blackmailed” by Russian threats, Natan Sharansky, former Jewish Agency Chairman and dissident who spent nine years in Soviet prisons stated in late July.
Threats of shutting down Russia’s Jewish Agency are setting off alarm bells among global Jewish community members and leaders who associate the possible move with the Soviet “refusenik” policy of denying Jews the right to emigrate to Israel.
“This is frightening, alarming and bad news,” a Chabad humanitarian worker with ties to Moscow’s Jewish community reported. “If they (Russia) kick out the Agency, Jews should consider getting out as fast as they can.”
JENNIFER CARMON is a Tel Aviv-based journalist covering conflict and political news in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. For 20 years, she has filed stories from Israel, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon, Ukraine, Libya, Iraq, the DRC, and Mali. Her reporting can be found in Haaretz, Reuters, the BBC, Euronews, The Jerusalem Report, PBS, and others.