The average person has not heard of the Jewish Agency, but the organization has been a lifeline for Jews around the world for decades. Its primary mission is to facilitate immigration to Israel, particularly for Jews in need. This is how some 30,000 Ukrainian refugees have found their way to Israel since the outbreak of the war. The agency also provides assistance to Jews across the globe, often with significant impact. In 2019, when a gunman attacked a synagogue in Germany on Yom Kippur, the security system of cameras and reinforced doors that stymied the assailant and prevented greater loss of life was funded by the Jewish Agency.
Over its nearly 100-year history, the agency has often been called upon to operate in fraught environments. One of those is today’s Russia, where it has been helping Jews who seek to leave Putin’s repressive regime. This week, however, Russian authorities ordered it to shut down—or at least, that’s what was initially reported in both the Israeli and international media.
The move understandably raised alarm bells. Russia has already effectively pressured Moscow’s chief rabbi into exile and resignation over his refusal to support the invasion of Ukraine. And dating back to the days of the Soviet Union, the country has a long and ugly history of collectively punishing its Jews and using them as international bargaining chips. Moreover, it was hard to disconnect this development from another one: the changing of the guard in Israel from former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to the current premier, Yair Lapid.
As foreign minister, Lapid was Israel’s leading voice against Putin’s war on Ukraine. While Bennett was careful to avoid criticizing Russia directly, and sought to negotiate an end to the conflict by mediating between the two sides, Lapid has been sharply critical of Putin’s advance. Under his diplomatic leadership, Israel publicly condemned the invasion, voted against it in the United Nations, helped lobby Arab states to join the anti-Russia effort, and sent both humanitarian and defensive aid to Ukraine. At the same time, Israel has held off on sending offensive weapons to Ukraine, despite entreaties from President Volodymyr Zelensky. There are two chief reasons for this reticence. First, there is concern that Russia might retaliate against Israel by contesting its air strikes against the Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist group in Syria. At the moment, Russian forces sit on Israel’s northern border but permit Israeli action.¹ Second, Israel worries that Russia might punish the approximately half-million Jews in Russia and Ukraine over the Jewish state’s actions.
In the days since Lapid assumed the top office, both these concerns have seemingly been borne out. Russia has dramatically escalated its criticism of Israeli air strikes in Syria, while threatening the Jewish Agency in Russia. It’s fair to wonder whether these acts are part of an effort to dissuade Lapid from altering Israel’s Ukraine policy. But at least when it comes to the Jewish Agency, that does not appear to be the case.
To begin with, contrary to initial reports, the agency has not been shuttered. “Jewish Agency activities are going on as planned, and nothing has been canceled or shut down,” Yigal Palmor, its official spokesman, told me. Rather than a response to recent events, the letter threatening the organization with closure was the latest development in a yearslong investigation by Russian authorities into the agency. While undeniably a form of intimidation, it is part and parcel with Russia’s general crackdown on civil society, rather than a form of geopolitical pressure. And the letter is a threat, not an order, and invited a response from the agency. As such, Palmor said, “We are examining the request from the Russian government in the spirit of negotiation.”
In the meantime, the agency is continuing to operate, and anticipates that an agreeable compromise will be reached with the authorities. Asked whether they expected the agency to be shut down, a senior Israeli official told me, “I think we are a long way from that.”
The dispute is a reminder that while outsiders often view states like Russia as single-minded, centrally controlled operations, the reality tends to be far more confused and chaotic. As one official with knowledge of the situation put it, “We tend to see the Kremlin and Russian government as a monolithic machine—they all get their instructions from the top, and they all act accordingly. It’s not exactly like that. You have many centers of power within the government that compete with each other, and don’t necessarily see eye to eye on everything, certainly not on Israel.”
At any point, any one of these groups might be acting independently on its own agenda, especially in a poorly governed kleptocracy like Russia. Some of these actors are more anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli than others, and see the Jewish Agency as a convenient target, while others are less hostile. The challenge for both the Russian Jewish community and any outsiders seeking to help them is figuring out which is which, and finding a way to navigate between them.
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¹ It’s worth acknowledging some little-acknowledged history here. While the international community eventually turned against Russia’s attempts to bite off larger and larger chunks of Ukraine, it mostly shrugged at Russia’s incursion into the Middle East. In 2015, President Obama dismissed this development as a strategic error that would turn into a “quagmire” for Putin. Instead, far from becoming a debacle, Russia’s entry into the region enabled it to shore up its ally—Syrian dictator Bashar Assad—and its continued presence in the Middle East has enabled it to project greater power and to pressure countries like Israel. The Jewish state’s predicament, like Ukraine’s, is the result of the international community’s prior failure to take Putin’s expansionist ambitions seriously.