On July 5, Russian news agencies reported that the Jewish Agency for Israel, or Sokhnut, is about to be banned by the Russian government. Sokhnut denied the news, saying it continued operating in Russia as usual.
However, on July 14, the Russian Foreign Ministry stated that if the agency, a semi-government organization coordinating the affairs of Jewish diaspora in Russia, wants to maintain its presence, it must rectify issues brought up by inspectors of the Russian Justice Ministry. No explanation was provided.
Four days later, the Basmanny District Court in Moscow announced that the Justice Ministry wanted to liquidate Sokhnut, again without providing details.
The Court held a closed preliminary hearing on the case on July 28, with the next hearing on August 19.
The move against Sokhnut followed the election in July of Israel’s new prime minister, Yair Lapid, who has called Russia’s war in Ukraine "a grave violation of the international order."
But the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, denied that a political payback was behind the proposed ban.
“In fact, there are questions for Sokhnut from the point of view of compliance with Russian law, and there is no need to politicize this situation and project this situation onto the entire complex of Russian-Israeli relations,” Peskov told reporters on July 26.
That is misleading.
Israeli government officials and political analysts widely interpreted Russia’s move against the Jewish agency as retaliation.
The head of the Jewish Congress in Russia, Yuri Kanner, warned the attempt to liquidate Sokhnut is “clearly unfriendly to the state of Israel and the Jewish community” in Russia.
"The attempt to punish the Jewish Agency for Israel's stance on the war is deplorable and offensive. Russian Jews will not be held hostage by the war in Ukraine,” Israeli Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai said on July 23.
Lapid was Israeli foreign minister when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into Ukraine in late February. His criticism of Russia was a departure from predecessors. Israel has not sent military aid to Ukraine but is giving humanitarian assistance.
On July 27, Israeli news agencies reported that Lapid sent a delegation to Moscow to find a solution that would keep Sokhnut open. He said Peskov’s remarks signaled that the Kremlin does not want a political crisis with Israel.
Some analysts in Israel tied the Russian government pressure against Sokhnut with the Israeli vote in support of suspending Russia from the United Nations’ Human Rights Council.
Sokhnut operates in countries where there is a Jewish diaspora, except for Iran, Kanner said in an interview to RIA Novosti. The Jewish Agency for Israel is the largest and oldest Jewish organization connecting Jewish communities and repatriating people to Israel.
The Jerusalem Post reported that not just Sokhnut but all other Jewish organizations in Russia are under Justice Ministry investigation and facing potential expulsion. Citing sources in Sohknut, the Post said that “for years” Sohknut was under surveillance by the Russian Federal Security Service.
The Russian Foreign Ministry, while denying political motives, said that during the last few months Russia has been hearing “absolutely unconstructive and most importantly, biased rhetoric” from Israel regarding the Ukraine war.
Russian political scholar Gevorg Mirazayan wrote in a July 26 analysis for the business newspaper Vzglyad that Russia’s move against Sokhnut “froze” the relations with Israel “at the verge of a critical rupture.”