“The Jewish Agency operated in Russia, it currently operates in Russia and I believe we will continue to operate there,” said acting chairman of the Jewish Agency Yaakov Hagoel in an interview with The Jerusalem Post while sitting in his large office in the national institutions building in the center of Jerusalem.
He continued to describe the delicate and complicated situation: “We are in dialogue with the Russian Justice Ministry and I estimate that the Jewish Agency will continue to operate in Russia.
“We have corporations that operate all over the world and at times there are inspections by local governments,” he said. “From time to time, there are inspections here in Israel as well. In the past year we have been examined by the Russians, even before the war with Ukraine began. I believe that there is an objective examination here. We answered all the questions we were asked. If necessary, we will correct the deficiencies.”
The Russian government has ordered the Jewish Agency to cease all operations inside the country, the Post revealed last month. The order was given in a letter from Russia’s Justice Ministry. Officials in the agency confirmed that the letter was received and later also acknowledged that there was a threat to liquidate the organization there.
Two weeks ago, Russia expanded its definition of “foreign agents,” and it will now include “those who take part in any activity that authorities determine goes against Russia’s national interests or who receive support of any kind, not just money, from abroad,” according to The Moscow Times. In this case, Jewish representatives from the Jewish Agency or representatives of international Jewish organizations may be categorized as “foreign agents.”
In addition, a meeting between the Israeli delegation sent to Moscow and Russian officials from the Justice and Foreign ministries hit a dead end regarding the status of the Jewish Agency in Russia.
Diplomatic sources familiar with the meeting have told the Post that it “took place on Monday morning between public servants and not with the political echelon that actually makes decisions. Therefore, as expected, the meeting was very technical and discussed the legal implications of the Russian privacy laws.”
World Zionist Organization
HAGOEL’S DAY job is actually chairman of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) – and in a few weeks, he will return to running this organization full time. As head of the selection committee to find a replacement for the former chairman, now President Isaac Herzog, Hagoel led the vote for former IDF senior commander Maj.-Gen. Doron Almog.
Asked if he could have imagined that filling in as chairman of the Jewish Agency would be so action loaded, Hagoel said that “I thought I was going to fill in for former chairman Herzog for a few weeks, or two months tops. The thing was, that the process of electing the next chairman was long and exhausting, with a lot of emotions and politics. There was also a lot of media that was reporting on possible candidates and it wasn’t very positive coverage,” He lamented.
“We decided to start from scratch,” he said. “We created a smaller team of four members, instead of a larger group of ten” – the official election body for Jewish Agency chairman, where nine out of ten votes are needed. “The fact that there were just four of us sealed leaks, so we were able to find the most appropriate candidate: Doron Almog.”
The four subcommittee members were Hagoel, incoming Jewish Agency Board of Governors chairman Mark Wilf, outgoing chairman Michael Siegel, Keren Hayesod World Board of Trustees chairman Steven Lowy. “This is a group of very serious people,” Hagoel said.
“We worked diligently. Wilf and Lowy are businessmen at the highest level internationally, yet they invested their time in the future of the people of Israel. You have to understand that every hour that they invested in this process is worth millions of dollars and I think that the general public doesn't understand what an amazing asset they are to the Jewish people.”
Hagoel revealed that the other committee members “asked me to check with Almog if he was interested in becoming the new chairman of the agency.
“At the end of the day, there was a procedure where all ten of us, especially a smaller group of four, voted for the benefit of the nation of Israel, the State of Israel and the Jewish Agency, in this exact order,” he said.
“In the last 12 years there was no obligation to consult with the government on the selection of a chairman for the agency,” he emphasized. “It's not even a custom, but we respect the government and want to work with it. We felt that this boggled the whole process.”
Asked whether he thought that the agency should consider a different system to vote for its chairperson, Hagoel said that he totally disagrees. “This voting system is bad for the candidates and good for the organization itself. Nine out of ten votes means that it is a candidate who is in line with the majority of the people of Israel, just like Mordechai Hayehudi in the book of Esther.”
Hagoel said that he is very happy with Almog, who is expected to start his position in a few weeks.
“I hope and believe that we chose the right man at the right time and in the right place,” he said. “He was a champion in the IDF, but in the past 20 years he [also] did amazing things. He led the establishment of a unique rehabilitation hospital of its kind in the Negev. He knows how to raise money from the entire Jewish world. I have no doubt that he is a very worthy man [who] made a career as a bright military commander and [later] as a creative social entrepreneur.”
Commendation and criticism
MANY OF his colleagues and competitors have said during the past year that Hagoel “is in love with the position of acting chairman of the agency,” and that “the committee that he is heading will never vote for a chairman since he wants to remain in this prestigious position for years.”
Hagoel is aware of this criticism and, when asked if this annoyed him, said that it indeed “annoyed” him, but that “the facts spoke for themselves: I led the selection committee, I turned to Almog, I accompanied him hand in hand upon entering the position. It's an amazing position and an amazing organization.”
“It was an intense year,” he concluded. “The Holy One, blessed be He, blessed me to lead a rescue mission from Ukraine and Russia. It also contributed a lot to my personal life and career; I learned a lot.”
Hagoel has been involved in national institutions in Israel for the past 20 years, yet he shared that he never realized how impactful the agency was, till the Russian-Ukrainian war broke out close to half a year ago. “I always knew that the Jewish Agency brought 3.5 million Jews on aliyah since the establishment of the state. I knew that there is no other such organization in the entire Jewish world.
“On the 24th of February, when the war in Ukraine began, I saw how this organization went from routine to emergency mode and it's so impactful to see,” he said. “I feel proud to head an emergency operation, where dozens of our employees in Ukraine saved lives. We brought thousands of volunteers to the borders and tens of thousands of immigrants to Israel. This operation was led by the Jewish Agency and fully funded by the agency.”
Hagoel pointed out the fact that “there was no budget category for Ukraine in the 2022 budget of the agency and despite this, the organization fulfilled its mission, which is built for the transition between routine and emergency – this isn’t taken for granted.
“I had the privilege of leading probably the largest operation of rescuing Jews in the past 40 years,” he said, adding that “there is amazing leadership in the Jewish Agency; amazing employees, volunteers and retirees who were also part of this massive operation.”
Jewish Agency's first reaction to the war
ASKED ABOUT criticism of the agency during the few first weeks of the war, as far as not having enough personnel at the borders, Hagoel said he also strongly disagrees, revealing that about a month before the start of the war, the agency booked huge numbers of hotel rooms.
“I'll tell you a secret: A few weeks before the war began, we exclusively booked 14 hotels across the borders of Ukraine in different countries, with thousands of beds as an option, in case we would need them,” he said.
“The real challenge is to be absorbed in Israel. We are a country that loves aliyah, but doesn't love the olim.”Yaakov Hagoel
“Personally, I was skeptical about this war actually happening,” but “nevertheless, after the war began, many organizations and governments wanted to book these hotels and they couldn’t find any vacant rooms.”
Hotel rooms were also secured in Israel by the Aliyah and Absorption Ministry headed by Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata. They were offered to Ukrainian and Russian olim, yet she decided at the end of April to allow only the Ukrainian refugees to stay at these Israeli government hotels since the Russian immigrants aren’t considered refugees. Many of the Russian olim said they had nowhere to live and there are huge difficulties in using their funds in Israel.
“The real challenge is to be absorbed in Israel,” Hagoel said, acknowledging this difficult situation. “We are a country that loves aliyah, but doesn't love the olim.” He pointed out that most of the families who made aliyah were women and children since men aged 18-60 are forbidden to leave the war-torn country. “The men are still in Ukraine and their families are here in Israel and in other countries.
“The real challenge will be whether we actually know how to absorb the thousands of immigrants in Israel,” he said. “This number will increase if we succeed since the men will join them and also make aliyah. If we don't know how to absorb them, they will return to Ukraine at the end of the war.
“We and the Israeli government need to see how we receive these immigrants. We at the Jewish Agency have been trying to help in these aspects.” Hagoel criticized the Israeli government, saying that, regarding “the housing challenge” and “employment difficulties... unfortunately, the government is not doing enough.”
The interim agency chairman specified that “it is true that Israel is in the midst of the largest housing crisis in our history. Yet leaders such as [the late prime minister] Ariel Sharon established new neighborhoods in the 90’s” for olim. “This isn’t happening today, unfortunately.
“The country must come to its senses, whether there are elections or not,” he said, adding that it “needs to find solutions – and I'm not talking about temporary solutions like hotels, but establishing new settlements or cities in Israel. This shouldn’t happen tomorrow; it should have happened already yesterday.”
Absorption of olim
REGARDING EMPLOYMENT, Hagoel stressed that “we must see how we help these olim to be absorbed properly and this means that they need to be employed. There are ulpans (educational institutions for teaching Hebrew) that the agency, together with the Aliyah and Integration Ministry, are working on.
“But that's not enough: We need to recognize and accept the professions and degrees of these olim,” he said. “If their professions aren’t acknowledged in Israel, then we need to make sure that they are – or teach them a new profession in a field that needs workers in Israel. Their university diplomas should be recognized in Israel, but unfortunately the Israeli government isn’t doing enough about making sure that this will happen.”
Continuing his criticism of the government, he said “I don't think that enough resources have been allocated for this aliyah operation. This isn’t a small wave of aliyah, but actually has potential to be a lot bigger. There have been about 3,000 to 4,000 olim a year from Ukraine in recent years and we are now hundreds of percent more than that. Means should be given to these olim in order to absorb them better. We are not even at the peak of the absorption yet since so many others are planning their aliyah.”
Hagoel explained that more needs to be done in order to promote aliyah, through Ofek Israeli, the national company for promoting aliyah, which he said is a very positive and successful venture of the government and the national institutions. “We need to hire more emissaries, and promote pilot trips of potential olim in Israel. All of this is happening but there needs to be more funds put into this important goal.”
Before the war in Ukraine there were three agency emissaries in the country. When asked why there aren’t more of them in countries such as Ukraine and Russia, Hagoel answered that “there were over 80 employees,” of the agency in Ukraine. “I was in Ukraine last October, before the war began. When I visited Kiev, I met dozens of employees who are engaged in taking care of the paperwork for future olim.
“Thousands of Jews emigrated from Ukraine to Israel every year regardless of the war. Someone had to manage the process there,” he explained. “Our work is not only in promoting aliyah, but the agency also has summer camps, recruitment for Masa and Birthright Israel programs in Israel and other educational activities.
When asked how countries such as Germany, with hundreds of thousands of Jews, had no more than one or two emissaries on behalf of the agency at times, Hagoel said that “It should be remembered that the Jewish Agency has been greatly reduced in personnel in recent years. There used to be a criticism of extravagance in the organization. In my opinion, the organization is not big but it's very efficient. If there are countries with great aliyah potential, more should be invested in them.”
As reported by the Post, thousands of Russian Jews are waiting to make aliyah, yet the fact that there are barely any flights from Moscow created a bottleneck in aliyah to Israel. “Because of the sanctions on Russia, many companies cannot land in Russia,” he revealed. “We tried to activate as many airlines as possible from all kinds of countries, yet it's important to note that the aliyah from Russia is continuing as usual.”
THE WORLD Zionist Organization will be marking 125 years since the historic first Zionist Congress in Basel Switzerland. It will be holding a special event at the end of the month with a series of events in Israel and around the world. The main event to mark and celebrate the anniversary will be held in Basel, site of the first congress in 1897.
“We will hold an event in a hall that hosted the first Zionist Congress, which recently underwent major renovations,” Hagoel said, adding that there will be over 1,000 Jewish leaders from Israel and Diaspora Jewish communities there. “President Herzog will be our main guest in Basel,” Hagoel said proudly.