Would tapping Nevzlin as Jewish Agency chair cause problems in Russia?

Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar observed that foreign organizations in Russia are under intense pressure.

 View of the Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem,  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
View of the Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem,
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

With the government’s candidate to head the Jewish Agency, Elazar Stern, having resigned, focus has now shifted to the chances of other leading candidates, particularly women such as former Diaspora Affairs minister Omer Yankelevitch, and chair of ANU–Museum of the Jewish People Irina Nevzlin.

Mention of Nevzlin’s candidacy has however been accompanied by speculation that her appointment would cause problems for the Jewish Agency in Russia due to the enmity Russian President Vladimir Putin has for her father, the Russian-born Israeli businessman Leonid Nevzlin.

Leonid Nevzlin was an executive and major shareholder in the Yukos oil and gas company together with his partner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, until Putin’s government alleged tax violations against Yukos, seized its assets in 2004 and imprisoned Khodorkovsky for 10 years.

Nevlzin himself fled Russia for Israel, which refused to extradite him to Russia due to lack of evidence over criminal allegations against him.

In a ruling in 2020, the Court of the Appeal of The Hague said the forcible breakup of Yukos was a politically motivated attack by Putin in response to Khodorkovsky’s involvement in Russian politics and his funding of opposition political parties.

Irina Nevlin, author (credit: YANAI YECHIEL)Irina Nevlin, author (credit: YANAI YECHIEL)

The ruling upheld a 2014 decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that the Russian state owed Yukos shareholders, including Nevzlin, some $50 billion for illegally expropriating the company.

In the context of the selection process for the chair of the Jewish Agency, political sources have speculated that as Nevzlin’s daughter, the Jewish Agency headed by Irina Nevzlin might face problems operating in Russia and fundraising from Russian Jewish donors.

Indeed, in 2010 the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors was set to meet in St. Petersburg at a meeting to be attended by wealthy Russian Jewish oligarchs.

A senior official in the Russian Foreign Ministry however became aware that Leonid Nevzlin was a board member of the Jewish Agency and delivered a message to the organization that the meeting in St. Petersburg could not go ahead with Nevzlin on the board.

The meeting was moved to Jerusalem as a result.

In and interview with Channel 12 News earlier this year, Irina Nevzlin herself asserted that her personal security and freedom would be under threat if she visited Russia.

“It’s clear to me that I could enter Russia, it’s not clear if I would get out,” she said, adding, “There are no guarantees in a dictatorship regime.”

A high-level source told The Jerusalem Post there would be “little risk” to the Jewish Agency’s operations in Russia, and asserted that although Putin has ruthlessly pursued his enemies, he has never gone after their children.

The source added that Nevzlin has proven ability to raise funds, a key requirement for the Jewish Agency chair, principally exemplified by the funds she raised for the complete overhaul of the museum she heads.

But Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar opined that foreign organizations in Russia have come under “more scrutiny than ever before,” and noted that many such groups have been forced to close down in recent years “because Russia thought they were interfering.”

Several human rights groups and democracy watchdogs have criticized Russia’s crackdown on NGOs and civil society organizations, while the European Union in July this year called on Russia to “stop the unabated crackdown on civil society and independent media.”

LAZAR, WHO is close to Putin and has even been given the moniker “Putin’s rabbi,” said Jewish organizations have also come under scrutiny but that they had not been affected by the crackdown.“Can someone be assured that nothing would happen [if Nevzlin was appointed Jewish Agency chairman]? I don’t know. Someone would have to ask the Russian government,” Lazar told the Post.

“It’s very possible nothing would happen, but if someone would feel that it would be a way for Leonid Nevzlin to come into Russia, you only need one person to build up a far-fetched theory and see the ripple effect. Nothing I heard would insinuate such a thing, but I understand why someone might feel such a thing.”

Rabbi Lazar said, however, “I’m not in position to say anything will happen,” and “I don’t run the country so don’t know.”

He added that the decision “is really up to the Jewish Agency.”

Lazar said he had not spoken to Russian government officials about the issue nor had he spoken to members of the Jewish Agency’s selection committee who will elect the chair.

Despite the rabbi’s concerns, several other well-placed sources have said they do not believe the appointment of Nevzlin would have any real impact on the Jewish Agency’s functioning.

A senior Jewish official in the Russian Jewish community said he did not think her appointment would create problems with Russian donors, as has also been speculated, noting anyway that the majority of funds donated to the Jewish Agency come from the US, so issues in Russia would not be significant.

A senior official in a prominent Jewish organization who has known Nevzlin for many years said, “She cares passionately about Jewish global issues,” while another senior Jewish official with a leadership position in one of the former Soviet states said that Nevzlin had proven herself to be a “master fundraiser” when overhauling the Beit Hatfutsot museum in Tel Aviv and creating the Museum of the Jewish People.

“The Jewish Agency has to do what’s good for it, not what’s good for Russia,” the official added.

But Michael Jankelowitz, who served as Jewish Agency spokesman to the international media at the Jewish Agency between 1998 and 2011, said he believed the appointment could be very problematic.

“The ramifications for the Jewish Agency in Russia, for its summer camps there, for Limmud FSU, for Masa, for Israel experience programs and everything connected to the Jewish Agency will be doomed if Irina Nevzlin is appointed chair,” said Jankelowitz.

“It would be very difficult for the Jewish Agency to operate in such circumstances, it’s aliyah [immigration] activities and all other programming would be affected.

“Her election as chair would endanger the activities of those associated with the Jewish Agency and its activities in Russia.”

In the decade from 2010 to 2019, more immigrants to Israel came from Russia than any other country, with some 66,800 immigrants arriving from the country, more than a quarter of the total number of immigrants, something that has continued over the last two years as well.

The Jewish Agency’s financial report for 2019 shows that the organization spent over $21 million on activities with Russian-speaking Jews, including preparation for aliyah, summer and winter camps, its Hephzibah school network in the countries of the former Soviet Union, and several other programs.

A spokesman for Irina Nevzlin declined a request for comment.