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Jewish Agency denies report that Russia directed it to cease operations there

Report claimed that Russian authorities accused the Agency of illegally collecting information about its citizens in order to facilitate immigration to Israel 

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, April 19, 2016. REUTERS/Kirill Kudryavtsev/Pool

The Jewish Agency denied a media report claiming it had been ordered to cease its work in Russia and said that it is still fully operational there.

The Jerusalem Post reported on Monday that the Russian government ordered the Jewish Agency to immediately cease its operations in the country, claiming that the agency has been illegally collecting information on Russian citizens and transferring the data in violation of the law. 

The organization released a statement shortly afterwards saying that “no instruction has been received from the Russian government to cease operations by the Jewish Agency.”

“It should further be clarified that as part of ongoing inspection procedures conducted by Russian authorities with the Jewish Agency’s representatives over the past several years, and following an administrative inspection procedure that lasted over a year, a letter was recently received at the Jewish Agency’s Moscow offices from the Russian authorities including remarks and criticism of the topics reviewed,” the Agency said.

The letter in question was sent by the Russian Ministry of Justice to the Jewish Agency earlier this week. According to the Agency, the letter mentioned “mainly administrative issues and points to problems that, according to its authors, have been criticized and their possible legal consequences.”

"The letter invites the Agency to respond in writing regarding the facts stated in it, therefore the Agency intends to study in-depth the meaning of the issues raised and their implications and to address them accordingly in the ongoing conversations with the authorities,” the Agency added. 

The Jewish Agency is a semi-governmental international organization known as the main body that encourages and facilitates aliyah, Jewish immigration to Israel. Its purpose is also to ensure the safety of Jews abroad and strengthen their connection to Israel.

The Jerusalem Post report noted that if the Agency’s operations are to be halted in Russia, it will be the first time in 30 years that efforts are banned. Under the Iron Curtain, Soviet Jews were unable to emigrate for many years. Since 1970, however, almost 2 million Jews and their relatives have emigrated from the former Soviet Union. 

Yigal Palmor, head of the Jewish Agency’s International Relations unit, told The Times of Israel that Russia did not demand the organization end its activities there. 

“There was no demand that we close, no ultimatum, and no deadline,” Palmor said.

The Post noted that such demands – if they were made – could smack of sanctions against Israel for its lack of support in the Russia-Ukraine war. Israel has found itself torn between Russia and Ukraine since the former invaded the latter in February.

Israel has expressed support for Ukraine while being careful not to condemn Russia, which holds military positions in neighboring Syria. The Jewish Agency has been working to help Jews in Ukraine move to – or at least find – refuge in Israel. The Post article implied that any demands by the Russian government regarding the Agency would be an attempt to “educate” Israel by sanctioning one of its affiliated organizations.

Another possibility is that Russia simply does not want its Jews to leave. Thousands of Jews in Russia have already completed the process of registration for making aliyah and are awaiting flights to take them to Israel. Such flights, however, have become scarce since Western sanctions against Russia forced many airlines to completely stop their flights to the country, leaving many Jewish migrants stuck there. 

According to some reports, more than 50% of recent immigrants to Israel are arriving from Russia, rather than from Ukraine.

Senior sources in Russia's Jewish community have told The Jerusalem Post that “people from the Jewish community have been feeling the Iron Curtain setting on them and they fear they won't be able to escape the country." According to one source, “a number of Jews have said that the Russian authorities are trying to arrest them and that they fear for their lives.”

Recent estimates indicate that there are 150,000 Jews in Russia’s “core Jewish population,” but that more than half a million are entitled to receive Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.

Israel’s Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata responded to the report, saying that, “Aliyah is a basic right for the Jews of Russia and we will make sure that it is preserved as such.”

“We must ensure that their scope of operation is maintained as it has been throughout the years,” the minister said referred to the Jewish Agency. 

“I appealed to the prime minister to work with the Moscow administration to resolve the problem and I want to strengthen the Jewish community in Russia, which must be worried at this time about the consequences of the decision,” she added.

Tal Heinrich is a senior correspondent for both ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS. She is currently based in New York City. Tal also provides reports and analysis for Israeli Hebrew media Channel 14 News.

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