Russian authorities have disclosed publicly for the first time that they canceled the license of the Jewish Agency for Israel because, they charged, its practices were violating Russian law.
In a briefing in Moscow, Russian foreign Ministry spokesman Grigory Karasin did not specify what the practices or laws in question were. “I regret to say that the representative office of this agency violated Russian legislation,” he said.
At the same time, he said, the cancellation was reversible.
“If the Jewish Agency displays readiness to strictly observe the relevant Russian laws and regulations, the existing problem can be resolved.”
Agency officials reacted with concern to this latest development in a monthlong imbroglio over their status in Russia.
But they suggested that the problem could be solved by meeting the Russians’ request to update their registration documents.
Jewish Agency Chairman Avraham Burg said Wednesday at a news conference called to respond to the charges, “The agency has always complied with all local and national legislation and regulations in every country in which JAFI operates. This is how JAFI has operated in Russia, and will continue to do so in the future.”
When the Russian canceled the agency’s license last month, Russian and Israeli officials downplayed the move as a bureaucratic, regulatory matter.
The same notification went out to several other foreign non-governmental organizations.
But Russian authorities subsequently began to restrict some agency activities, shutting down some local offices and canceling and immigration seminar.
While Jewish emigration has not been affected, should the agency lose its mandate to operate in Russia – something officials assert is highly unlikely – emigration could be at risk.
The agency has helped hundreds of thousands of Jews emigrate from the former Soviet Union to Israel the gates reopened in 1989. An estimated 2 million Jews still reside in the former Soviet Union.
The Jewish Agency is the primary recipient in Israel of funds raised by the United Jewish Appeal in concert with local federations.
Karasin’s public statements Tuesday clearly shocked agency officials, who has planned to apply for reaccreditation the very next day.
But one highly placed Israeli official who requested anonymity cautioned that the timing probably was only coincidental.
He said Karasin likely was responding to letters from overseas, primarily the United States, pressing the government to explain last month’s action.
Still, the remarks triggered alarm in Israel,
Burg told reporters that he has spent Tuesday night in emergency consultations with Prime Minister Shimon Peres and representatives of the Foreign Ministry, and has spoken on the phone with several Diaspora Jewish leaders.
Evidently reluctant to escalate the tensions, Burg insisted that “this is not an issue between the states of Israel and Russia, but between Russia and a non- governmental organization.”
At the same time, he said, “we are ready for every contingency,” but refused to say what steps might be taken, should the Russian government turn down the agency’s reaccreditation request.
Without actually blaming Russian official, Burg implied that they had stalled the reaccreditation process by refusing to accept the agency’s completed application forms.
The news conference was cut short when Alla Levy, director general of the agency’s unit in the former Soviet Union, called from Moscow to say the she had successfully delivered the forms to the Russian Justice Ministry.
The ministry now has 30 days to accept or deny the agency’s application.
But, the highly placed Israeli source said developments could rest on more than whether the agency has submitted the proper papers.
He said the latest public comments by the Russian official has elevated the story’s profile in Russia and could set off an unpredictable chain of events just as the country is preparing to vote in presidential elections next month.
“The Russian politicians read the newspapers and they will have to respond,” he said, adding that they could be angered by the publicity.
Mark Levin, executive director of the National conference on Soviet Jewry, said, “The substance of the situation really hasn’t changed,” only “the type of attention” it has gotten.
“We’ll have to wait and see” what the impact of this latest publicity will be on the agency’s operations, he added.
So far, “nothing has changed on the ground in terms of the movement of people.”