Menu JTA Search

Jewish Agency Voices Concern About Official Russian Actions

Russian authorities this week halted an immigration seminar sponsored by the jewish Agency, prompting agency officials to express concern about their status in the country.

“The Jewish Agency operates in dozens of countries throughout the world and has never been subject to such treatment,” Avraham Burg, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, wrote in a letter of protest Tuesday to Russian Justice Minister Kovlivov Valentin.

The moves against the agency caught the attention of the U.S. administration and Congress.

“We’ve raised our concerns about this at senior levels of the Russian government,” Glyn Davies, a State Department spokesman, said at the daily news briefing Wednesday. “Our embassy in Moscow continues as well to pursue it.”

The disruption of the seminar Tuesday in Pyatigorsk, in Russia’s northern Caucasus, follows the cancellation of the agency’s accreditation in early April by Russian authorities.

Agency leaders repeatedly have downplayed the suspension of their license as a technicality and insisted that their operations in Russia remained unchanged.

The agency, which is the primary recipient of funds in Israel raised by the United Jewish Appeal in concert with local federations, encourages and oversees the immigration of Jews to Israel.

Nonetheless, the loss of accreditation had given rise to a host of speculation that sensitive politics are at play in advance of Russia’s June presidential elections and that Jewish emigration could be at risk.

The agency’s muted tone changed after Russian authorities arrived Tuesday at its offices in Pyatigorsk and asked emissaries for documents proving that they were operating legally in the area.

According to an agency statement, the Russian officials then asked the agency emissaries to accompany them to an immigration seminar being held nearby. There, the officials read aloud the government’s orders canceling the accreditation and then halted the seminar.

“The cancellation of the immigration seminar is one more episode in a string of events through the past few weeks that have raised a doubt as to a possible change in the position of Russian authorities regarding Jewish Agency activity in Russia,” an agency statement said.

“Any disruption in Jewish Agency activity in Pyatigorsk has an immediate effect on the process of immigration to Israel,” the statement said.

Pyatigorsk is “an area with many ethnic and political tensions” and, hence, a source of steady immigration to Israel, it added.

In a telephone interview from Jerusalem, Burg said, “The concern is we don’t know whether it is bureaucratic stupidity or if there is a policy here.”

Burg planned to hold meetings this week in the United States with Jewish organization heads to discuss steps to be taken in light of the new developments.

But in arriving at a strategy, it is clear that he is walking a fine line.

Burg noted that in a meeting with the Russian ambassador to Israel, Alexander Bovin, it was agreed that “there would be no positive outcome” if the problems surrounding “the legal registry of organizations were to be blown out of proportion or become an issue with widespread repercussion.”

Meanwhile, even before the seminar was halted, the accreditation issue had caused concern in the Jewish world.

“It’s something that has to be watched,” said Martin Wenick, executive vice president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

“This is a transitional period in the former Soviet Union with a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “It’s not clear if it’s Jewish Agency-specific or is in relationship to the political situation and the operations of foreigners.”

Said another U.S. Jewish expert who asked to remain anonymous: “This could be part of a broader campaign to make [Russian President Boris] Yeltsin and his government appear more nationalistic.”

If he is re-elected, he said, “the tone and tenor may go back to what it was or there could be a re-emergence of the old apparatchiks (Soviet-era bureaucrats) and their desire to see a return to what once existed: greater control over the flow of people in and out” of the country.

The Israeli media reported this week that new restrictions are being placed on the emigration of Jews of army age or working in security-related institutions.

But a well-placed Israeli official said any new restrictions on exit visas are related to the enforcement of “secrecy” laws protecting national security and that they are not specific to Jews.

When the Russian Ministry of Justice notified the agency last month that new laws rendered its license to operate invalid, other foreign organizations operating in Russia received similar letters. That prompted the agency to dismiss claims by some that anti-Semitic or anti-Israel trends were at work and to insist it was not being singled out. Other experts in the field confirmed that rules and regulations for organizations in Russia are constantly changing.

Burg said the agency is working to comply with new accreditation laws. Jewish Agency officials in Israel last week traveled to Russia to meet with officials about the accreditation.

In Washington, the State Department emphasized the need for continued freedom to emigrate.

“One of the most important aspects of political reform in Russia from the standpoint of the United States has, of course, been freedom for Russian citizens to emigrate,” Davies said.

“We expect that Russian citizens will continue to be able to exercise that right. And up until now we’ve seen no indication that the Russian government is restricting the right to emigrate,” Davies said, calling this “a bottom-line consideration.”

Meanwhile, three members of Congress wrote a letter to Secretary of State Warren Christopher, expressing their “deep concern” over the cancellation of the Jewish Agency’s license to operate in Russia.

“It is imperative we make clear to President Boris Yeltsin that a return to the restricted emigration policy of its past is completely unacceptable,” wrote Reps. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Jim Saxton (R-N.J.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.).

The push for financial aid to Russia, they wrote, was based in part on the “assumption that Russian Jews would be free to emigrate and free of strong-arm tactics in Russia.”

The news reports, they said, “shake our faith and those assumptions and cause us to re-evaluate our position on aid to Russia.”

NEXT STORY