The Kremlin denies any political motive, even as Moscow attacks statements by Israeli officials opposing the invasion of Ukraine. Established more than 90 years ago and affiliated with the Israeli government, the agency assists Jewish families immigrating to Israel, including arranging travel and paying for airline tickets.
More than 16,000 Russians have left the country to go to Israel since the start of the war, according to the Jerusalem Post, in a sign of concern over President Vladimir Putin’s brutal campaign to “denazify” Ukraine and his Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to overthrow. Another 34,000 have traveled to Israel as tourists.
Natalia, 43, who works in IT in St. Petersburg, decided to leave for Israel the day Putin invaded.
“We had no intention of leaving earlier. When the war broke out, we decided very quickly,” she said in a telephone interview, asking to be identified by her first name only for fear of reprisals by the Moscow authorities. Her number one priority was to get her 18-year-old son out of the country before he could be conscript.
Vadim, a 39-year-old documentary filmmaker from Moscow, plans to immigrate to Israel “as soon as possible” because he is against the war. He sees Russia’s move to dissolve the Jewish Agency as “politically natural”, and he fears it will complicate his attempts to leave. He also refused to give his last name.
“The aim is to teach Israel a lesson and create problems for those who want to leave Russia,” he said.
Israel wants an apology after Russia’s Lavrov compares Zelensky to Hitler
The rising tensions between Russia and Israel are the result of several recent scandals, including anti-Semitic remarks by Russian government officials and the forced exile of the Chief Rabbi of Moscow. Moscow, meanwhile, has been angered by comments from Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who has condemned the invasion and accused Russia of “war crimes.”
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt fled Moscow after refusing pressure to support the war, then stepped down as chief rabbi earlier this month, saying staying in the post “would have endangered” Moscow’s Jewish community.
“Russia has done more to promote emigration to Israel in recent months than the Jewish Agency has done in the past decade,” he said in a recent tweet.
According to Israeli immigration minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, about 600,000 Russians are eligible to immigrate to Israel. Israel also accepts the non-Jewish children and grandchildren of Jews.
According to the Russian-Jewish Congress, there are nearly 180,000 Jews in Russia, 70 percent of whom are in Moscow and St. Petersburg, many of them well-educated and employed in specialist fields such as IT. The departure of thousands of them has fueled a massive Russian brain drain, one of the hidden costs of Putin’s invasion that could reverberate for years to come.
Natalia believes the move to close the Jewish Agency is “because of brain drain, or maybe it’s some kind of leverage. They don’t want people to leave and lately we’ve seen a lot of skilled and experienced IT specialists leave – and not just in IT. Russia clearly doesn’t like it.”
Vadim’s grandfather moved to Russia in the 1920s from the Vinnytsia region of western Ukraine, learned Russian and managed to enter a university, where he studied medicine.
“In the Soviet Union, it was difficult for Jews to go to universities and find good jobs, and many had to change their last names to avoid problems. I think my grandfather could only go to university because it was just before the war and the country needed doctors,” Vadim said. “There has always been anti-Semitism in Russia and in certain circles in the Soviet Union.”
Putin is the first Russian president to visit Israel and has warm relations with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the current opposition leader. He donated a monthly salary to help build the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, funded by oligarchs and opened in 2012.
But anti-Semitism remains rife in Russia. A poll by the Levada Center, a renowned independent polling station, found in December 2021 that only 11 percent of Russians surveyed said they would like to have a Jew as a close friend; only 7 percent would welcome one at work; and only 27 percent thought Jews should be allowed to live in Russia.
Some fear that rising Russian nationalism, hatred of Zelensky and tensions between Russia and Israel could increase hostility towards the Jewish community.
“If they start talking on TV about tensions with Israel, it could lead to anti-Semitism,” Natalia said, adding that she had never seen this openly.
Key Russian officials close to Putin, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and former President Dmitry Medvedev, have recently expressed anti-Semitic views.
Lavrov, who criticized Zelensky in May, said Hitler “also had Jewish blood,” sparking outrage in Israel and beyond. Medvedev wrote an article in the Kommersant newspaper last year in which he attacked Zelensky in virulently anti-Semitic terms.
The Kremlin said on Tuesday that the move to shut down the agency was related to violations of Russian law and “should not be politicized or extended to the entire range of Russian-Israeli relations”. But on state television that same day, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova criticized Israel’s stance on the war in Ukraine, calling it biased and “completely incomprehensible and strange to us.”
Lapid said on Tuesday that Israel is ready to engage in dialogue with Russia if legal issues need to be resolved. A delegation sent to Moscow to try to resolve the issue was delayed for several days but came in for talks on Thursday, Russian media reported.
Russia’s Justice Ministry has acted swiftly in the past to abolish foreign organizations and prominent local rights groups, and its crackdown on the Jewish Agency could be just the beginning. According to the Jerusalem Post, several other Jewish organizations in Russia, which rely on funds from Israel or the United States, received letters from authorities last week warning that they could be declared “foreign agents,” signaling that the government could come and get them afterwards.
Steve Hendrix in Jerusalem and Mary Ilyushina in Riga contributed to this report.