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Russia mulls dissolving Israeli emigration agency

Marina Baranovskaya
August 18, 2022

Sources suggest Moscow fears a brain drain if too many Jewish citizens leave Russia for Israel. The Justice Ministry seeks the closure of the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and a court will now decide.

The Jewish Agency for Israel premises in Moscow
The Jewish Agency for Israel was established in 1929Image: Mikhail Tereshchenko/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

The relationship between Russia and Israel has rarely been so tense. Despite high-level phone calls, the Russian arm of the Jewish Agency for Israel faces forced closure.

There has been speculation in both countries as to what might be behind this development. The Russian-language department of the British broadcaster BBC reported in July on a 20-page document containing a list of alleged irregularities that the Russian Justice Ministry had sent to the Jewish Agency in June.

According to an anonymous source at the Jewish Agency in Russia, there were two main points of criticism: That the personal data of Russian citizens had been collected and sent abroad, and that the Jewish Agency was encouraging the "brain drain" from Russia by helping some of best qualified workers in the country to leave.

A Jewish Agency staffer was cited as saying that the ministry had said that this was "adversely affecting the economy and prospects of the Russian Federation."

According to official statistics, some 4 million Russians left the country in the first quarter of 2022, which Russian media have said is an increase of 46% over the previous year. 

Strengthening Jewish identity

The Jewish Agency, also known as the Sochnut, has two main goals: To help Jews from around the world to emigrate to Israel and to strengthen Jewish identity. It provides Hebrew courses and educational programs and also assists those in need in both Israel and abroad. In Russia, the agency also provides support to partners that help the elderly and people with disabilities — including Jews and non-Jews.

Set up in 1929 and now boasting branches all over the world, the Jewish Agency started operating in Russia in 1989, when more emigration to Israel began. However, it does not promote emigration to Israel. It only supports those who are entitled to emigrate, paying for flights and helping people to build new lives once they have arrived in Israel.

According to its data, in 2021 the number of emigrants from Russia to Israel increased by 10% to 7,500. Russians account for the largest group of people relocating to the country.

Natan Sharansky at a table with a glass of water
Natan Sharansky is a former chairman of the Jewish AgencyImage: DW

Annexation of Crimea triggered a more hostile bilateral relationship

Natan Sharansky, a Soviet dissident and the former chairman of the Jewish Agency, told DW that the non-profit group had been "targeted by Russian authorities" after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent outbreak of war in Ukraine.

As tensions increased with the West, Russia banned all non-governmental organizations from collecting data on Russian citizens and storing it abroad. "But that is exactly what the Jewish Agency does," Sharansky said. "It contacts people who have a right to emigrate, runs various programs and helps people to resettle in Israel."

The Israeli Jerusalem Post daily suspected there might be a political reason behind the development. The relationship between Russia and Israel, the newspaper wrote, has become more complicated since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February. Though Israel did not join the Western sanctions, it did condemn Russia and has provided support to Ukraine.

In May, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov caused a scandal when he compared Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Hitler. Russian President Vladimir Putin later apologized for these remarks to Naftali Bennett, who was Israeli prime minister at the time.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov compared Zelenskyy to HitlerImage: Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service/TASS/picture alliance

'Deplorable and offensive'

Last month, Israeli Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai suggested that Moscow was attempting to "punish the Jewish Agency for Israel's stance on the war" and was quoted by The Times of Israel as saying that this was "deplorable and offensive."

"Russian Jews will not be held hostage by the war in Ukraine," he insisted.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid has warned that the forced closure of the Jewish Agency in Russia would have a "serious impact on Israel-Russia relations."  

The matter was the subject of a phone conversation between Putin and his Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog on August 9. The Reuters news agency reported that the Kremlin had said the men had agreed that "contacts about the Jewish Agency" would be "continued in both countries."

Nonetheless, the Jewish Agency is preparing for the worst and, according to The Jerusalem Post, "has taken steps to move its Russian operations to Israel and online." 

This article was originally written in Russian.