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Ukraine gives Jewish Agency deadline to comply with laws

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MOSCOW, July 30 (JTA) — Ukraine has threatened to suspend the Jewish Agency for Israel’s operations in the former Soviet republic. The move, if implemented, could adversely affect Ukrainian Jews emigrating to Israel. The Ukrainian Justice Ministry sent a letter to the agency’s representative in Kiev earlier this week, charging that some of the agency’s offices were operating illegally. Under Ukrainian law, a group can operate freely nationwide if it has licensed offices in 13 of 25 Ukrainian regions. The agency has licensed offices in only four regions, according to the ministry. The ministry has given the agency until the end of September to register its other offices. The ministry has also demanded that the agency renew its accreditation. Jewish Agency officials in Kiev could not be reached for comment, but Yossi Shturm, a JAFI spokesman in Israel, said lawyers in Kiev and Jerusalem were examining the letter and that the agency was planning to comply with the registration request. “We hope to continue working as usual,” he said in a telephone interview. Much of that activity involves assisting Jews who want to emigrate to Israel. In recent years, Ukraine has accounted for some 60 percent of Jews moving to Israel from all of the former Soviet Union, which is currently the largest supplier of aliyah to the Jewish state. JAFI maintains offices to help prospective emigrants in more than 50 Ukrainian cities. Ukrainian Jewish officials said the ministry’s letter does not mean that the government intends to curb Jewish emigration. But one Ukrainian Jewish leader said the government’s threat could reflect the discontent of the country’s authorities with some of the agency’s youth programs. Naaleh, for example, is a program that recruits 15-year-olds and 16-year-olds to finish high school in Israel. Most of the participants move to Israel and adopt Israeli citizenship. Some 7,000 youth from the former Soviet Union are currently enrolled in the program. “Local officials in several regions have repeatedly expressed indignation that [the agency] in fact recruits teen-agers for emigration under the pretext of cultural work,” said one Ukrainian Jewish official who wished to remain anonymous.
In Ukraine, as in most of other states in the former Soviet Union, the Jewish Agency operates in accordance with bilateral agreements that allow it to promote Jewish culture and support Jewish life. Israel and Ukraine also have an agreement on the exchange of students. An official with the Ukrainian Education Ministry, reached by telephone in Kiev, said the ministry was aware of the difficulties that the agency has in some regions with the Naaleh program. But the official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, also said that earlier this year authorities in at least two regions had proposed launching criminal investigations into the agency’s youth programs. This is not the first time the agency’s activities have drawn the attention of Ukrainian authorities. In 1994, Kiev demanded that the agency stop its operation. That dispute was settled when then-Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres intervened during a visit to Ukraine. The latest controversy in Ukraine bears some resemblance to difficulties the Jewish Agency faced two years ago when Russia canceled its accreditation. The conflict was settled after months of negotiations when the agency agreed to set up a new organization, the Jewish Agency in Russia, with Russian citizens among its founders. (JTA staff writer Julia Goldman contributed to this report.)

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