(JTA) — In an unprecedented move, the Russian government has told the local representatives of the Jewish Agency for Israel to end their activities and leave the country, according to reports in Russian media Thursday.
The move comes amid increasing tension between Russia and Israel over Israel’s response to Russia’s war on Ukraine, and as Russia seeks to strengthen ties with Iran.
The closure of the Jewish Agency’s local offices means that Russians will no longer be able to apply for citizenship in Israel from Russia, evoking memories of when Russian Jews were not allowed to leave under communism. It also means that the efforts to promote emigration to Israel and community-building activities offered by the Jewish Agency in Russia will be curtailed.
Jewish Agency staff in Russia must leave the country by July 28, according to a report by RBC, a Russian news agency, that did not offer a reason for the order.
The Jewish Agency did not immediately respond to request for comment. But a former senior employee who spoke to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency under condition of anonymity said Russia’s decision has limited significance for aliyah, the immigration to Israel by Jews and their relatives.
“As long as Russians can travel to Israel visa free, Russian Jews can come here and make aliyah here directly with the Interior Ministry. The Jewish Agency is just a go-between, not an arbiter of aliyah applications,” the source said.
“When the visas are cancelled, that’s when we can speak of the return of the Iron Curtain,” the source added.
Deteriorating relations between Israel and Russia mean such a move is not inconceivable. This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Iran to meet with Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader and a sworn enemy of Israel.
“Recent stances taken by the President of Russia against the Zionists are commendable,” Khamenei tweeted soon after their meeting, without specifying which actions he was referring to.
The meeting came amid reports that Russian officials have privately said that Yair Lapid’s recent appointment as prime minister of Israel “is creating special difficulties” in the countries’ relations. Lapid was a more forceful critic of Russia than his predecessor, Naftali Bennett, after Putin sent his army to invade Ukraine.
Russia’s embassy in Tel Aviv has reportedly conveyed Moscow’s “disappointment” with Israel for voting along with the majority of the United Nations General Assembly in March to pass a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In the first half of 2022, at least 16,598 people made aliyah from Russia — more than double the 7,711 who came during the whole of 2021. Many newcomers left because of the war, which ushered in a wave of nationalism and new limitations on free speech in a country that was already widely considered a dictatorship.
The fact that some of the newcomers to Israel are oligarchs and other wealthy individuals who brought some of their wealth with them “is not appreciated by Vladimir Putin,” the Jewish Agency ex-0fficial said.
But the main reason for the move, he estimated, is geopolitics. “Cutting diplomatic relations with Israel or shooting down one of its planes is too drastic an action for Russia right now, so the Jewish Agency is a soft target to send a message,” they said.
Earlier this month, the Jewish Agency said it had received a letter from Russian authorities outlining concerns it would need to respond to. The concerns related to the group’s record-keeping about Russian citizens, which the Russian justice ministry said was illegal.
The Jewish Agency, a semi-official arm of the Israeli government, said the letter did not constitute a demand for it to cease operations and said it would continue its work without interruption while discussing the issues raised in the letter with Russian authorities.
Roman Bronfman, a former lawmaker from Israel who has written a book about aliyah from the former Soviet Union, said that while Russia’s move has limited concrete impact, it should be seen as a warning sign.
“The Jewish Agency’s work won’t affect aliyah, its role is only supportive and unnecessary in the modern world,” he tweeted in Hebrew Thursday. Instead, he said, Russia is using the closure to “pressure Israel, the global Jewish community and American Jewry. A dictatorship’s power games.”
Still, Bronfman added: “Advice for my friends: Leave Russia as soon as possible if you’re planning to.”