Israel is in the midst of a complex and potentially difficult dispute with Russia.
Moscow has set its sights on the Jewish Agency for Israel. On Thursday morning, Moscow’s Basmanny District Court began considering a lawsuit filed by the Russian Ministry of Justice on the liquidation of the agency in Russia. The court set August 19 as the date for the hearing.
The Russian government sent the Jewish Agency a letter about a month ago in which it said the organization must close operations. It accused the organization of violating privacy laws, mainly collecting information on Russian citizens for the purposes of facilitating their immigration to Israel and sharing the information with the Israeli government.
According to a new privacy law in Russia, an organization that receives funding or even assistance from an international body or country can be considered a “foreign agent.” Violations of this law can bring imprisonment for up to seven years and closing down of the relevant organization.
Legal issue or reaction to Israel and Ukraine war?
On the one hand, Russia says this is a purely legal issue. However, that this controversy erupted during the Ukraine war, with Israel being pressured by Moscow and Washington regarding its stance on the conflict, makes the timing suspect.
Government officials have tried to keep this controversy from getting worse and becoming a war of words between Moscow and Jerusalem that could harm Jews in Russia. It is essential that Jews not be used as pawns. Unfortunately, the election season in Israel, combined with the conflict in Ukraine, means there is a very real possibility that the controversy will not be managed responsibly.
An Israeli delegation has gone to Moscow to try to sort out the latest controversy in which Russia has tried to prevent the Jewish Agency from doing its work. But even that wasn’t straightforward. The delegation was kept waiting several days for visas.
The Russian Justice Ministry petition to close the agency is a disturbing development. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the Jewish Agency issue should not be “politicized or projected onto the entirety of Russian-Israeli relations.” He said this is merely an issue of “complying with Russian law.” He’s right in saying this should not be politicized but remarks by Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova claiming that Israel has been “biased” and “unconstructive” show that there are wider ramifications.
Prime Minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog have done a good job trying to keep any tensions from boiling over. Both of them are right to work at keeping the issue from growing into a larger spat. This is because there is nothing to be gained by having Russian Jews used as pawns, or having the agency’s work ended in Russia.
Israel has always had to be aware since its foundation that it has a unique position in the world. Not only is Israel the sole Jewish state, it is also a destination for Jews who are fleeing persecution or want to immigrate to Israel. That has often meant that Jews have found themselves targeted in other countries when disputes are connected to Israel.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict has often been overshadowed by attempts to drag Israel into the spotlight. For instance, some in the West have accused Israel of not being sufficiently pro-Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has also made this an issue. Meanwhile, pro-Russia commentators have accused Ukraine of being “Nazis,” a kind of rhetoric that has often meant both sides compare the other to the Nazi era.
Inevitably then, Jews have become pawns, asked to back both sides. Israel is unfairly put in the middle with no easy way to thread the needle of making the right moral decisions while keeping out of the conflict.
“The less we talk about it and the more we do, the better,” President Herzog has said. “Russia is an important country. There could be numerous different scenarios and explanations to why and how this happened.”
“Russia is an important country. There could be numerous different scenarios and explanations to why and how this happened.”Israeli President Isaac Herzog
We agree. We don’t want to see the controversy in Russia exploited for politics in Israel, and we don’t want to harm relations with Moscow. However, Israel must make it clear that Jews in Russia and immigration to Israel should never pay the price for political differences. We value relations with Russia but the Jewish Agency should not be at the center of a legal controversy.
Russia should allow the Jewish Agency to work as it has in the past.