How will banning the Jewish Agency affect Russian Jews? - analysis

There are 150,000 Jews in Russia’s “core Jewish population,” but more than half a million are entitled to receive Israeli citizenship.

The Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
The Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Until 30 years ago, emissaries of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) would work undercover in the former USSR, as if they were Mossad agents. Practicing Judaism wasn’t allowed and therefore many Israelis and Diaspora Jews would enter the country and try to surreptitiously teach a bit of Hebrew or Judaism.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the huge exodus of Jews from Russia and its neighboring countries, the Jewish Agency and other Israeli or Zionist organizations have been allowed to work freely. Summer camps for Jewish youths take place each year, immigration to Israel is promoted, as is participation in programs in Israel such as Birthright Israel and Masa.

However, Russia’s Justice Ministry demanding that the Jewish Agency stop its activity in Russia is a game changer.

The order was given in a letter received from the Russian Justice Ministry earlier this week. Officials in the Jewish Agency confirmed that the letter was received. They would not comment on any possible response that is under consideration in the organization’s offices in Jerusalem in consultation with the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office.

According to recent estimates, there are 150,000 Jews in Russia’s “core Jewish population,” more than half a million of whom are entitled to receive Israeli citizenship according to the Law of Return.

 REFUGEES FROM Ukraine and Russia board their aliyah flight at Chisinau Airport. (credit: BRIAN SCHRAUGER) REFUGEES FROM Ukraine and Russia board their aliyah flight at Chisinau Airport. (credit: BRIAN SCHRAUGER)

Motivation behind the decision

There are at least three possible reasons for Russia’s action against the Jewish Agency. First, the organization promotes immigration to Israel by Russian Jews. Second, JAFI has been at the forefront of assisting the Jews of Ukraine. And third, Israel’s military actions in Syria might have prompted the Russian government to try to “educate” Israel by sanctioning an organization affiliated with it.

So what are the implications of permanently or even temporarily closing the offices of JAFI in Russia?

The most immediate impact will likely be felt by the more than 100 employees in the Jewish Agency offices and branches across Russia. In addition, all of the educational activities that had been taking place until now will be canceled, such as Jewish summer camps and educational activities about Judaism and Israel for young children and for adults. In addition, assisting Russians to make aliyah will need to officially stop.

More than 13,000 Russian Jews have made aliyah since January 2022. In addition, thousands of Russians have already qualified for immigration to Israel, but haven’t yet boarded a flight since there are barely any flights available. The lack of flights is due to Western sanctions on Russia and because most airlines don’t fly to Russia.

Why wait?

The question is: Why has the Israeli government and JAFI been waiting for so long in order to fly these Jews or descendants of Jews to Israel? For months, Jewish representatives have been warning about the fact that they feel the “Iron Curtain” setting again in Russia. Yet for some odd reason, the authorities in Israel haven’t sent airplanes to bring these Jews home.

As opposed to Ukrainian Jews, Russian Jews literally have nowhere to go. Western countries don’t want them and won’t see them as refugees, and Israel may be cut off from them because of these tensions.

JAFI runs Sunday schools in Russia, in addition to partnerships with local Jewish organizations, and Hebrew lessons for those interested in learning the ancient Jewish language.

There is also the huge psychological effect on the local Jewish community. The Jewish Agency is considered one of Israel’s representatives in Russia. It’s a symbol. Embassies and consulates exist only in two cities; Moscow and St. Petersburg, yet JAFI has branches all over the country. JAFI is an organization that is considered a representative not only of Israel but also of the Jewish people.

If JAFI needs to leave Russia, Jews there are likely to hide their identity and erase any external Jewish symbols they may wear or display normally. This may even be the beginning of a new wave of antisemitism in Russia. That might be the message Russians will understand from their government’s actions.