‘Isolated’ Russia seeks to pressure Israel through squeeze on Jewish Agency, says Sharansky

The former head of the Jewish Agency said that Putin’s regime is “almost completely isolated from the free world.”

By Ben Cohen, The Algemeiner

An increasingly hostile Russia is searching for ways to pressure its adversaries as the war in Ukraine continues to rage, with the Russian Jewish community representing Israel’s weak spot, the former head of the Jewish Agency said on Wednesday.

Natan Sharansky — the former Soviet Jewish dissident who succeeded in emigrating to Israel in 1986 — told Voice of America’s Russian-language service that President Vladimir Putin’s regime was “almost completely isolated from the free world.”

“They are trying to put pressure on different countries. They are scaring Germany with the fact that people will start dying from the cold in winter,” Sharansky said, referring to the international sanctions on Russia’s energy sector, which supplies Germany with 55 percent of its natural gas.

“In the same way, they are starting to put pressure on us, using the Jewish Agency,” continued Sharansky, who served at the agency’s helm from 2009-18.

At the end of July, the Russian Ministry of Justice announced a legal bid to shutter the local operations of the Jewish Agency, which assists Jews wishing to emigrate to Israel. The ministry claimed that the agency violated Russian law by allegedly maintaining a database of Russian Jews planning to make Aliyah.

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A preliminary court hearing in Moscow where the Agency will have an opportunity to present its case is scheduled for Aug. 19.

Israeli media outlets published contradictory accounts of the Jewish Agency’s intentions on Wednesday, with the Jerusalem Post claiming that the agency was preparing the closure of its Russian operation and the Times of Israel quoting an unnamed official saying that it had no “imminent” plans to shut down, stressing, “We’re certainly not going to leave if we can help it.”

In the interim, Israeli officials have been anxiously trying to keep communications with the Russians open. Putin discussed the issue with his Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog on Wednesday, though neither side divulged details of their conversation.

An Israeli analyst separately told Voice of America (VOA) that the recent elevation of Yair Lapid to the Israeli prime minister’s post was another reason for Russian belligerence towards Israel.

“Yair Lapid, as foreign minister and later prime minister, took a less measured approach,” Prof. Jonathan Dekel-Chen of the Hebrew University said. “He clearly identified Russia as an aggressor. This is more about rhetoric than any concrete actions, but in this conflict rhetoric is important.”

Lapid has described the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a “serious violation of the international order,” accusing Russian forces of committing “war crimes” in the town of Bucha during a visit to Ukraine in April.

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‘There is no division by nationality here’

One of Ukraine’s two chief rabbis meanwhile said that the country’s Jewish community had been decimated by the invasion, highlighting the irony of this reality against Russia’s insistence that its war is a “denazification operation.”

“We had a wonderful life here — Jews, Russians, everyone in Ukraine lived well,” Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman told VOA. “Nowadays, many Jewish communities have been evacuated and the community in Mariupol simply does not exist anymore.”

Azman added that two synagogues in Mariupol “were destroyed…In Kharkiv, the community is constantly under fire; that is, what is left of the community. The same is happening in Mykolaiv. This is what ‘denazification’ means.”

The head of an Israeli medical mission in Ukraine emphasized in his interview with VOA that Jewish leaders and the community more broadly had thrown themselves into the task of aiding their fellow citizens.

“There is no division by nationality here. There are a lot of examples of how the leaders of the Jewish community, if they did not leave Ukraine, became leaders of civil society and provide massive help to all those in need,” Albert Leiser-Feldman, who is also the founder of the Kyiv-based Golda Meir Center for Civil Society Development, said.

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More than 31,000 people have emigrated to Israel from Ukraine and Russia since the war broke out at the end of February. Between Feb. 24 and July 31, Israel received 12,175 new immigrants from Ukraine and 18,891 from Russia, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, citing data from the Immigration Ministry.

Russia’s Jewish community is estimated at just under 200,000, while Israel is home to more than 1.3 million Russian Jews.