In a sudden move on July 21, the Russian government ordered the Jewish Agency, with local offices in Russia, to shut down and remove its staff from the country by July 28. The Agency, which, among other things acts as a go-between for those Jews wishing to emigrate from Russia to Israel, was told to close as tensions between the two countries continue to escalate over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Israel’s new prime minister, Yair Lapid, has been a strident critic of the incursion of Russian tanks and military might against a sovereign nation, and that he is now Israel’s head of state creates “special difficulties,” in the countries’ relations, as Russian officials observed privately.
The immediate impact of the removal of the Jewish Agency is that Jews will no longer be able to apply for Israeli citizenship from Russia but will instead have to physically go to Israel—if allowed—in order to do so. The situation is reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s blocking of Jewish emigration nearly a half-century ago, an action that attracted worldwide attention and censure, and the coining of a new word—“refusenik”—meaning a Russian Jew who had been refused permission to leave the country.
The Jewish Agency, established in 1929 and the largest nonprofit Jewish organization in the world, operates in over 65 countries and impacts the lives of over 1.2 million Jews. The organization played a major role in the establishment and continuance of the state of Israel, and as an unofficial arm of the Israeli government broadly promotes emigration to Israel and the strengthening of Jewish communities.
Prime Minister Lapid warned that the dissolution of the Agency in Russia would be “a grave event” that would severely damage the ties between Jerusalem and Moscow.
Possibly not coincidentally, Russian President Vladimir Putin had just met with Iran’s Ali Khamenei, that country’s supreme leader and a sworn enemy of Israel.
“Recent stances taken by the President of Russia against the Zionists are commendable,” Khamenei tweeted soon after their meeting, in what may have been a veiled reference to the order to dissolve the Jewish Agency.
Roman Bronfman, a Ukraine-born former Israeli lawmaker and expert on emigration from the former Soviet Union, described these tactics as “a dictator’s power games” and said that though the order for the Jewish Agency to pack up and move out will have a limited impact, it nevertheless should be seen as a warning sign.
“Advice for my friends, ” said Bronfman. “Leave Russia as soon as possible if you’re planning to.”
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