Jewish Agency: Russia nixes St. Petersburg meeting

NEW YORK (JTA) — The Jewish Agency for Israel has canceled plans to hold its upcoming board meetings in St. Petersburg over concerns that the Russian government would not allow the gathering to take place.

The agency had announced in the fall that it would be holding the meetings there with the intent of showcasing to its 120-member board the projects that the organization operates in Russia. But despite several months of planning, the Russian government recently cooled to the idea, according to a letter the agency sent Tuesday to its board of governors.

“Two weeks ago we were advised for the first time about some outstanding issues regarding the legal status for the Jewish Agency in Russia,” the letter said. “We immediately submitted all the required documentation and have since been waiting for an official response. In the interim we have received numerous unofficial messages but no clear answer. Today we heard via the office of the Israeli Ambassador in Moscow that the Russian Foreign Ministry still maintains that our legal status in Russia is not adequate for convening a meeting of the Board of Governors.”

The meetings will now take place Feb. 21-23 in Jerusalem.

The decision to change locations comes at a critical time for the agency’s operations in the former Soviet Union after having had to slash its programming in the region because of recession-induced budget cuts. The agency’s new chairman, former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, has made it a top priority to resuscitate funding for projects in the region.

The Russian government, according to a Jewish Agency source, has been focusing on the fact that the Jewish Agency is registered in Russia as a local NGO, but the board of governors meeting is an international convention.

An agency insider dismissed this line of argument.

“It is not as if they didn’t know who we were three months ago,” the source said. “They put up last-minute, ostensibly bureaucratic, hurdles."

"Apparently they didn’t want it to happen," the source said. "The Jewish Agency is Israel’s largest nonprofit with diplomatic links to Russia. In an ironic way, this justifies our need to be there."

It is unclear how much the change in venue will cost — or save — the agency. The organization had chartered a plane to fly many of the 200 registered participants from Jerusalem to St. Petersburg.

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