A Riddle wrapped in a Mystery inside an Enigma

Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid called a meeting of ministerial colleagues and interested parties to discuss the threat from the Kremlin to close down the Jewish Agency for Israel in Russia – a body which facilitates the emigration of Jews from that country.

Many were unsure whether the Kremlin’s move was merely intimidatory posturing or a reflection of a developing reality towards Jews and Israel. For several weeks previously, the Israeli government did not take it seriously and placed the issue on the back-burner.

The crisis had formally begun on July 1, when a letter arrived from the Russian Ministry of Justice to the Jewish Agency which cited a violation of Russian law. The letter stated that the Jewish Agency “collects, stores and transfers data about Russian citizens”.

In reaching out to Russian Jews, the Jewish Agency has clearly been carrying out its traditional role — a role it officially took over in 1989 in the USSR during Mikhail Gorbachev’s promotion of glasnost and perestroika. However, collecting information and storing it on servers outside Russia has been forbidden since 2014 – the year of the annexation of Crimea. The Jewish Agency has therefore been skating on thin ice as the Kremlin tightened the screws on Russian society with increasingly draconian actions. The Ministry of Justice then placed the matter in the hands of a Moscow court. 

At a hearing held in camera this week, the court set yet another hearing for August 19. This may provide a period of mediation between Israelis and Russians to diffuse the crisis and potentially kick the issue into the long grass. On the other hand, this byzantine dance may still lead the Kremlin to ban the Jewish Agency from Russia.

Another possible cause of Russia’s umbrage has been the delay in transferring ownership of the Aleksandr Nevsky church in Jerusalem into the Kremlin’s hands. Agreed by Benjamin Netanyahu a couple of years ago, it is believed that Chabad has placed obstacles in the path in order to obstruct the handover.

Chabad wants the Schneerson Library Archives of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe – some 12,000 books and writings – now residing in the Lenin State Library, in exchange for the Nevsky church.

Finally, Israel has been famously cautious in its approach to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, angering the White House and the Europeans. Even so, a couple of days ago the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, described Israel’s approach as “unconstructive”.

While there has been a plethora of explanations for this attempt to fasten the shutters on the Jewish Agency, it has been defined at its roots by Putin’s drift towards an ultra-nationalism in order to underpin his regime. Putin depicts the Russia of 2022 as the inheritor of both Peter the Great and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. His desire to conquer an independent Ukraine is, in his mind, simply a measure to restore Russia to its historic destiny.

This week, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov embarked on a tour of African states — Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and the Congo — to solicit support for the Kremlin’s attempt to make Russia great again. The weaponising of grain exports from Odessa to feed Africa has become an instrument of Putin’s foreign policy. The Russian support for the Ethiopian government to combat the Tigrayan rebellion has been reflected in the growing number of Ethiopians who have enlisted to fight against Volodymyr Zelensky’s western armed forces in Ukraine.

In Cairo, Lavrov told the Arab League summit that Ukrainians needed to “liberate themselves from the burden of this absolutely, unacceptable regime”. Lavrov clearly chose not to visit Israel on his trip but given his recent bizarre comments about Hitler’s Jewish origins, he would not have been welcome.

In parallel, Putin was the guest of Iran, which strongly supports Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Several days after President Biden’s visit to Israel and the Middle East, Putin signed a $40 billion memorandum of understanding between Gazprom and Tehran on energy cooperation. Putin also offered to help Iran develop the Kish and North Pars gas fields, plus another six oil fields. Like Russia, Iran has been sanctioned by the West and seeks to use its energy reserves as a means of alleviating Western pressure. Significantly, Putin did not publicly allude to Iran’s nuclear program and the possibility of developing weapons of mass destruction, aimed at Israel.

One aspect of the Kremlin’s action against the Jewish Agency is therefore, not so much an instance of antisemitism, but one of opposing foreign influence and the West in general. Yet Jews in Russia have traditionally espoused a more liberal and internationalist world outlook, as reflected by their disproportionate numbers in dissident movements – from Trotsky to Navalny.

Another sentence in the Ministry of Justice’s letter ominously singled out “Russian citizens working in the field of science and business whose departure to permanent residence outside of Russia significantly reduces Russia’s scientific and economic potential.”

This threat to restrict economically crucial figures from leaving the country was highly reminiscent of the Education Tax of 1972, when highly qualified Soviet Jews were ordered to pay back the costs of their education to the state before emigrating to Israel. There was a sliding scale of prices from brilliant academicians downwards — and the USSR’s hope was clearly that Israel and the Diasporas would “buy” Soviet Jews to fill the coffers of the Kremlin. Within a year this scheme was abandoned.

In 2022, this comment about a potential Jewish brain drain from Russia and the war in Ukraine has set alarm bells ringing in many a Jewish household. It is significant that 743 Russian Jews emigrated to Israel in February, but with the onset of the invasion of Ukraine, this figure jumped to 3348 in March. Some 3000-4000 Russian Jews now arrive in Israel each month, far outstripping the number of Ukrainian Jews who have travelled there.

The reaction in Israel to the potential closure of the Jewish Agency has been mixed, particularly from former Soviet Jews. Avigdor Lieberman seemed to suggest that this episode has been overblown in importance while Natan Sharansky’s advice to Russia’s Jews was to get out as soon as possible.

Yair Lapid’s approach towards Moscow has been decidedly frosty. While more to the political centre than Naftali Bennett, he is also a child of Jewish history. His father was saved by Raoul Wallenberg’s actions in the Budapest ghetto in 1944.

Unlike both his predecessors, he does not have either a rapport or a hotline to the Kremlin. He has been far more critical of Russia than Bennett and blamed Russia for the war in Ukraine and the war crimes in Bucha in particular.

He ensured that Israel voted to expel Russia from the UN Human Rights Council in early April, in contrast to Netanyahu, who instructed Israel’s delegation at the United Nations not to support a condemnatory motion at the UN General Assembly, following the annexation of the Crimea in 2014. In part, this was done to dilute Russian criticism of Israeli actions in Gaza.

Netanyahu visited Putin in September 2015 to ensure that the Israelis and the Russians did not clash over Syrian skies during the civil war. In August 2017, Netanyahu visited Putin at his palace at Sochi on the Black Sea to discuss the growing Iranian military presence in Syria. Putin suggested a withdrawal of Iranian forces to some 100km from the Golan Heights. Netanyahu rejected this offer as too limited.

Netanyahu’s combination of bonhomie, realpolitik and cynicism secured an invitation to Moscow’s Victory Day Parade in 2018. Significantly, Netanyahu has said nothing about Russian atrocities, committed by its armed forces in the conflict in Ukraine.

Lapid’s approach is, therefore, far different, but the likelihood of a confrontation in Syria – either by accident or design – remains.

In a couple of weeks, Jewish communities around the world will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the execution of 15 Soviet Jews after a show trial in the summer of 1952. This included leading members of the Jewish intelligentsia such as David Bergelson, Peretz Markish and David Hofshteyn. August 12, 1952, is rightly known as “the night of the murdered poets”.

This act of remembrance by the Diaspora colours the belief that Russia will never change for the better, whether ruled by tsars, Soviets or nationalists. It remains addicted to medieval, corrupt and inscrutable actions. As Churchill put it so long ago: “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Plus61j 28 July 2022

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