Israel-Russia Relations on the Brink Over Jewish Agency Feud

Jewish Agency is at the heart of Aliyah, the prophesied returned of the exiles. Does Moscow’s move have biblical ramifications?

By Ryan Jones | | Topics: Russia
Prime Minister Yair Lapid leads a cabinet discussion about Moscow's threat to close the Jewish Agency offices in Russia.
Prime Minister Yair Lapid leads a cabinet discussion this week over Moscow's threat to close the Jewish Agency offices in Russia. Photo: Marc Israel Sellem/POOL

Israel says there could be serious political fallout over Russia’s unexplained move to shutter the Jewish Agency. Making the situation even more tense was Moscow’s failure at the weekend to approve visas for a delegation Israeli government advisors who wanted to discuss the matter.

In other words, Russia is threatening to shut the organization at the heart of Aliyah, the prophesied return of Israel’s exiles, and is refusing Israeli requests to talk about it.

At Sunday’s Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Yair Lapid warned Russia’s position could result in a rift between the two nations.

“The relations with Russia are important for Israel…[but] closing the Jewish Agency offices would be a serious event that would affect those relations,” stressed Lapid.

Russia’s Ministry of Justice claims that the work of the Jewish Agency’s local offices “violates Russian law,” and calls to kick the organization out of the country are growing. A hearing at the Moscow District Court is scheduled for this week.


Entry denied

Israel had hoped to preempt the upcoming Moscow court hearing by negotiating the matter with the Kremlin.

A high-level Israeli delegation headed by National Security Advisor Eyal Hulata was assembled and scheduled to leave for Russia on Saturday. But Moscow failed to confirm the delegation’s visas, thus delaying their departure and raising tensions.


Why is Russia doing this?

Speculation is rife as to why Russia is doing this at this time.

While Russia’s Ministry of Justice claims the Jewish Agency violated local laws, it has failed to identify which laws were broken. Nor has the Kremlin made any effort to clarify the matter.

An Israeli diplomatic source was cited by TPS as saying that Russia is threatening to close the Jewish Agency as leverage to achieve something, a form of blackmail. Israel is expected to offer Russia something in return to ease the pressure.

Another report claims that Russia is upset that Lapid became prime minister. Several sources have noted that Russia’s pressure on the Jewish Agency began after Lapid entered office a few weeks ago. Russia’s ambassador to Israel reportedly sent messages to Israeli sources saying that the Russians are unhappy with Lapid as prime minister, because of his statements against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

As foreign minister, Lapid in late February finally joined other Western voices in openly condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which he said was “without justification.” After the massacre in Bucha, Ukraine, in April, Lapid stated: “Intentionally harming a civilian population is a war crime and I strongly condemn it.”


Why shutting the Jewish Agency is a slap in Israel’s face

The Jewish Agency is a global organization that helps Jews immigrate to Israel.

With one of the larger Jewish populations outside the State of Israel, Russia is an important area of operation for the agency.

Officially The Jewish Agency for Israel, the organization began operation in 1929 as a branch of the World Zionist Organization. It later played a pivotal role in the establishment of the State of Israel. In fact, David Ben-Gurion was chairman of the Jewish Agency at the time he declared Israel’s independence.

Following the founding of the State of Israel, the Jewish Agency became a parastatal organization, though it does not receive its core funding from the Israeli government.

The Jewish Agency is somewhere between an NGO and a full government enterprise. What is more clear is that the agency is intimately tied to Israel’s restoration and continued growth, particularly through Aliyah.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, the Jewish Agency has helped more than one million Jews from Russia and its satellite nations return to the land of their forefathers and integrate into Israeli society. Immigration absorption on such a scale for such a small country would have been impossible without an organization like the Jewish Agency.

An estimated 180,000 Jews remain in Russia, with a similar number spread out among satellite countries like Ukraine. Israeli media has noted that the closing of the Jewish Agency in Russia evokes fears of a return to Cold War conditions in which these Jews would find themselves trapped.


What can Israel do about it?

Lapid on Saturday instructed Israel’s Foreign Ministry to prepare a series of political measures against Russia to be implemented in the event it does liquidate the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency.

Israel is expected to adopt a cautious approach, at least at first, as Russia has the ability to limit the Israeli military’s freedom of action in Syria, and some even fear it could provide advanced missiles to Iran.

According to former ambassador to Russia and Ukraine Zvi Magen, Jerusalem has several options for exerting pressure on Moscow.

“Israel can change its de facto neutral position regarding the war in Ukraine. Of course, this may have adverse consequences from the Russian side, but it is an option nevertheless,” he told JNS. “In addition, Israel can join the Western sanctions on Russia, which it is not part of at the moment. The sanctions imposed on Moscow are not the result of a decision by the Security Council, but independent initiatives of the United States, the European Union and other countries, and as such are not binding for Israel.”

Magen stressed that Israel should not be limited due to fears over its military freedom of action in Syria, as Russia is not looking to change the status quo there.

“The complicated political and military [situation] that the Russians are in enables Israel to exert pressure on Moscow more freely,” he said, estimating that Moscow is ultimately unlikely to deliver on its promise to shut down the Jewish Agency offices in the country.


Biblical ramifications?

Israel has in recent decades worked hard to cultivate warm relations with Russia. There are three reasons for this:

  1. The aforementioned large Jewish community that remains in Russia, and that historically has been targeted with violence by those seeking a scapegoat;
  2. Russia’s military presence in Syria, where Israel maintains it must act against Iranian elements, and thus needs Moscow’s tacit approval to do so;
  3. America’s weakening position in the Middle East, resulting in Israel’s thinking that it can no longer rely solely on its number one ally, and must foster relations with other superpowers like Russia and China.

But while relations with the United States are rooted in biblical faith (even if modern politicians prefer to focus on shared democratic values), the same is not true with Russia.

The fickle nature of Israel-Russia relations was demonstrated early in the current Ukraine war. Wary of upsetting bilateral ties, Israel conspicuously refrained from joining the West in condemning Russia’s invasion of its neighbor. The moment Jerusalem did utter muted criticism, however, Moscow responded by openly questioning Israel’s right to sovereignty in the Golan Heights (among other unfriendly statements).

Many Christians and Jewish observers believe Israel-Russia relations must rupture for the fulfillment of prophecy.

Russia and its satellites have long been associated with the biblical prophecy of Gog and Magog, a great enemy that will one day attack Israel from the north preceding the coming of Messiah.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the idea of a Gog and Magog scenario developing in the North seemed nothing more than a distant rumble. Now, it sounds as though things are moving towards a situation where Israel will have to make a choice: Continue to rely on its traditional partnership with the once-Christian US? Or risk flirting even further with the evil axis forming in the North?

The Prophets of Israel would no doubt have much to say about today’s current events.

For more on this, see: Are Russia and China the New Gog and Magog?

With reporting by JNS and TPS.

Israel Today Newsletter

Daily news

FREE to your inbox

Israel Heute Newsletter

Tägliche Nachrichten

KOSTENLOS in Ihrer Inbox