For about 24 hours, beginning last Friday and ending Saturday night, heads of Jewish organizations around the world met in situation rooms in the US, Israel and Europe and pulled out their contingency plans, thinking of the smartest way to evacuate hundreds of thousands of Jews across Russia.
Many of these leaders are Orthodox Jews who were connected to their phones and computers to try to save lives in what looked to be a coup against Russian President Vladimir Putin, but very quickly understood that this dramatic event is over, at least for now.
On Friday, the Wagner Group, a semiprivate military headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, led an armed rebellion against Moscow, with the units withdrawing from Ukraine and seizing Rostov-on-Don in Russia. The rebellion was stopped on Saturday through the mediation of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Interestingly, many of the religious members of Russia’s Jewish communities weren’t aware of the drama in their country since they weren’t connected to any news sources on Shabbat, which begins at nightfall on Friday and ends on Saturday night.
Quiet preparations for mass-evacuation of Jews
None of these organizations would speak about the plans they had during those tense 24 hours, but they all began trying to implement plans they hoped they would never need to use. Some of them tried to get the Jews out through other countries, such as Finland; others found temporary hotels in areas that weren’t expected to be taken over by the Wagner Group.
Not only were these organizations quiet, but so was the Israeli government, after being instructed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to work under the radar, in order not to harm relations with Russia. The Jewish Agency, which has been very quiet since a trial began against their representation in Russia a year ago, launched a call center this week in Russia, in order for this to take place locally and not internationally, in order to obey the Russian law that forbids sharing information of local citizens with another country.
About 60,000 Russians have made aliyah to Israel since May 2022, through Israel’s Law of Return. In addition, 13,000 families have already qualified for aliyah, about 40,000 individuals; this is without counting the many thousands who are waiting for a first meeting at an Israeli Embassy or Consulate in Russia, and will need to wait a staggering eight months for an appointment. The head of Nativ, a government entity that is in charge of identifying who qualifies for the Law of Return in former Soviet Union countries, said at a Knesset committee discussion this week that she has no more personnel she can send as counsels to deal with the large numbers of local Russians interested in aliyah, and also that there aren’t enough spaces for the existing representatives to work, since they can only do this work in local embassies. This has created a huge bottleneck of would-be olim who want to become Israeli citizens but cannot, at least not in the next year.
The million-dollar question is: Does this government really want to bring hundreds of thousands of new immigrants from Russia? The short answer is that it is complicated. The long answer is that the government would love large waves of aliyah, but this very conservative and religious government would have preferred for halachic Jews to make aliyah, not grandchildren of Jews.
Only 28% of FSU olim in 2020 were considered “Jewish” under Israel’s Law of Return, according to a report by the Knesset Research and Information Center. According to the report, three out of four immigrants who made aliyah during 2020 weren’t Jewish. According to the data, those olim came to Israel as descendants of Jews, and are not Jews themselves, according to the definition of the law. Under the Law of Return, any Jew can make aliyah and become an Israeli citizen, yet those who have at least one Jewish grandparent can also make aliyah based on their connection to a Jew. The Grandparent Clause was added to the law in 1970.
In November, The Jerusalem Post revealed that about 20% of the olim from FSU countries in the past decade aren’t Jewish and were able to make aliyah since one of their grandparents was Jewish.
Members of the Religious Zionist Party have been speaking about making amendments in the Law of Return since before they joined this government. Aliyah and Integration Minister Ofir Sofer is a member of the RZP, but is a bit more moderate, saying behind closed doors that he is looking for ways to leave the law the way it is, but to try to tighten the practical criteria of aliyah de facto. One MK said this week that if the Israeli government would have really wanted olim from Russia, it would have sent private planes and brought to Israel all of those thousands of Jews who are waiting for aliyah.
The silence of the current government is understood, but the question is whether it is preparing for a situation where many more will want to come immediately? This remains unclear. Agency Chairman Doron Almog and Sofer have spent a number of days in France this week, and there are those who have criticized this, saying “how could they have left Israel at such a dramatic and sensitive time?”
IN RUSSIA, there are different opinions about the views of the Jews regarding the situation. If you ask any Chabad rabbi, he will say that Jewish life is continuing as usual and that the Jewish summer camps are jam-packed. Others will say that most of their friends and family want out, but of those, some say they want to go to Israel and others say that they actually would prefer to leave to other countries in the area, such as Georgia.
I spoke to a Russian Jews this week, whose name and identity won’t be exposed in order to maintain his safety. “People don’t talk about the situation; it’s taboo,” he told me on a phone call this week. “Russians, whether Jewish or not, do not express their political preferences. Everyone is afraid and trusts no one.
“Without a doubt, all Jews that I know are thinking of leaving or emigrating. It’s all a matter of how and when.”
He said that there “is a lot of pressure” to leave Russia and that “there are a lot of people who are taking advantage of these desperate situations and asking for money in order to expedite an appointment with Israeli officials or to renew an existing Israeli passport.”
This Russian Jew said that he is very involved in Jewish life, attends services and has all of his family events in the kosher restaurant near where he lives. Asked what the rabbis and leaders of his community have been saying recently, he said that “publicly, the rabbi hasn’t spoken about the current situation in Russia since the outbreak of the war. I personally don’t want to put him in an uncomfortable situation. At a holiday event in my community, the rabbi spoke many times about the fact that he is in contact with the rabbis in Ukraine, adding that there is still Jewish life there, despite the war.
“For people over the age of 50, it is difficult to start over in a new country,” he said.
Asked about where Jews want to emigrate to, he explained that the “oligarchs with a lot of money can choose where they want to live, but middle-class Jews don’t really have an option other than leaving for Israel.”
He explained that most Jews in Russia, who don’t leave the country as often as he does, can only read news from Russia that is censored and with much propaganda. Therefore, they probably think that the coup attempt wasn’t actually as dramatic as it was portrayed in Western media outlets.
Asked what the future of the Jewish community in Russia is, this Russian Jew said that up until recently he thought otherwise, but that “it is difficult for me to take away a future for the Jews of Russia,” he said, wept for second and added, “I see no future for Russian Jews.”