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Russia’s closure of the Jewish Sochnut agency reveals its true identity policy

On July 27th 2022, the Russian ministry of justice sued the Russian branch of the Sochnut Jewish Agency – an important non-profit which assists Jewish communities around the world. The recent repression of this Jewish organisation seriously contradicts Russia’s own claims that Ukrainians are Nazis who do not tolerate any other nations and cultures.

By the time Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, entered office in the spring of 2019, Ukraine’s prime minister was Volodymyr Groysman. This meant that the country’s two most powerful positions were occupied by Ukrainians with Jewish roots for the first time in the history of modern Ukraine. At the same time, Russia’s state propaganda continued to come up with more nonsense allegations that Ukraine was controlled by far-right Nazis.

December 7, 2022 - Vladyslav Faraponov - Hot TopicsIssue 6 2022Magazine

The Jewish agency for Israel website. Photo: Anna Strigana Fedotova / Shutterstock

This prepared Russians for an atmosphere of constant hostility with Ukrainians, as they were labelled publicly as enemies.

Back in the Soviet Union, antisemitism was a clear state policy and was seen in daily life despite not being declared officially. This was partly due to some large segments of the Bolsheviks, including the founders of the Soviet Union, being Jewish. Up to the late 1980s and especially during the years after the Second World War, Jews were not allowed to hold high-ranking positions. There was a quota on how many Jewish students could be enrolled at universities. That is why the collapse of the Soviet Union was seen as a breath of fresh air for Jews in all the republics of the former Soviet Union. Eventually, it opened a window of opportunity to migrate to Israel and start a new life. Such a tendency was relevant for both Ukrainian and Russian Jews.

At least 1.1 million Russian Jews emigrated to Israel by the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse. It is very difficult to identify how many of this number could be considered Jewish just because of their ancestors and how many still practiced Judaism at the time. The general tendency was that as many years and generations pass, in Orthodox society, it is assumed to be much harder to keep practicing Judaism, celebrate Jewish festivals and raise children according to Jewish traditions. In the meantime, the Russian strategy to incorporate other non-Russian nationalities, including Jews, into one land amounted to a policy of assimilation. By creating one people, which claimed to be great, Moscow tried to gain influence over its population and establish a monolithic structure. This has started to crack due to its full-blown war against Ukraine.

New repressions

On July 27th 2022, the Russian ministry of justice sued the Russian branch of the Sochnut Jewish Agency. The Basmanny District Court of Moscow opened the case and the trial itself was delayed several times. At the time of writing, the future of this case remains unclear. Yet, considering the wartime agony within Russia’s political leadership and the fact that it was the ministry of justice that filed the lawsuit, it is presumed that the agency will be shut down eventually.

The ministry of justice claims that Sochnut violated Russian law. According to the Jerusalem Post, the claims of the Russian authorities are related to the collection and transfer of personal data of Russians to Israel and brain drain. At the same time, the BBC emphasised that these allegations were not the first. Moscow’s ministry of justice had previously expressed the same concerns and conducted various checks in the organisation’s headquarters around the country. It then fined the organisation for violating some technical standards. However, the government considered this fact as proof of wider guilt and continued pressuring Sochnut.

Moreover, the Kremlin’s justification for accusing the Jewish organisation was absurd and could be viewed as very suspicious. The allegations dealt with the fact that Sochnut collected data on Russian citizens and sent it abroad. The organisation checks if a person has Jewish roots and then send the documents to Israel to be approved. Russia’s decision is nothing more than politically-motivated, as the organisation has been operating in Russia for more than 30 years and has helped thousands of people with Jewish roots move to Israel or discover the history and culture of the people and country.

In that regard, Russia’s desire to close down one of the leading Jewish organisations in the world reveals the truth behind the Kremlin’s strategy regarding the unification of its population. It is much easier to keep a tight rein on a homogenous society, as minorities may protest over many different things. By declaring publicly that Jews are better off leaving rather than staying, Russia did not just violate its own constitution but only announced publicly that nonconformists will face problems. At the same time, from the Putin regime’s perspective, this move can be seen as a desire to eliminate “unstable” elements. Jews are certainly viewed as one of them.

It is essential to mention that people with Jewish roots traced back three generations, preferably from the maternal line, are allowed to immigrate to Israel. Of course, Jewish people’s motivations to conduct repatriation and migrate differ. They may seek a better life and social and medical care. They do not want to flee a country under the threat of repression due to the discovery of their religious beliefs.

In that case, the closure of the most influential Jewish organisation in Russia indicates on a symbolic level what is going on domestically. In the meantime, it also reveals how the Kremlin regime sees the future of other nationalities in Russia – or rather how it does not see it. What is even more revealing is that the recent repression against the Jewish organisation contradicts Russia’s own claims that Ukrainians are Nazis who do not tolerate any other nations and cultures.

As Walter Russell Mead writes, antisemitism indicates “a society or culture that is not ready for prime time and which will fail the tests of modern life; when antisemitism gains a foothold, the canary in your coal mine has just keeled over and died”. One can argue that the closure of a Jewish organisation is not a direct act of antisemitism, but it shows that there is little place for the Jewish population. It is clear that Jews are not really welcome in Putin’s Russia.

Political pressure ramping up

What impact will Russia’s decision actually have? In order to answer this question, it is essential to explain what Sochnut is, what purposes it serves and how important it is for the Jewish people around the world. Sochnut is a key source of transition into the Jewish tradition. The most important work of these organisations, which takes place worldwide, is to guide Jews on a cultural level. It coordinates the efforts of other Jewish organisations that deal with issues related to culture, such as learning Hebrew, setting up cultural and educational camps for children, providing humanitarian assistance, and financial aid to Jews. Arranging repatriation to Israel is just one of its major functions.

Sochnut is like a bureau, an essential link between other organisations. It is the first place approached by Jewish people who seek various types of assistance. Sochnut is meant to conduct seminars on Jewish history and culture, promote values and attract new members through camps and courses for young people in the countries it operates. Those are the universal rules for Sochnut, which are applicable to Russia as well.

At the same time, it could not be argued that this decision would change the lives of millions. According to Russia’s census data, as of 2010, there were little more than 165,000 people in the country who identified themselves as Jewish. The BBC reported in August 2022 that more than 20,500 of Russia’s estimated total of 165,000 Jews had left the country since March. There was also a chance for those Russians in third states to apply for immigration documents, so it is likely that a lot of uncounted Jewish Russians are on their way to repatriation.

Just prior to the justice ministry revealing its absurd claims, Moscow’s chief rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt, fled the country and his post. He was reported to have felt politically pressured by the government to do so. Goldschmidt did not support Russia’s full-scale war, although he was asked to do so. Moreover, he was the chief rabbi for more than 30 years, which once again showed that he served the community well. He was also re-elected for his job last June, so other factors beyond political pressure due to the war are not well argued. On his Twitter, he wrote that “I could not remain silent, viewing so much human suffering, I went to assist the refugees in Eastern Europe and spoke out against the war.” This is very important to understand, as for Jewish people the rabbi is the first person they approach in case of uncertainty or when they seek advice. In light of this, the rabbi’s resignation should be considered a bad sign for Jews in Russia. As he symbolically pointed out in the op-ed for the New York Times, the Jewish people remember that it is the role of faith to counter evil, to fight for the basic human rights of liberty and life.

There is no doubt that the announced “partial” mobilisation in Russia, which may conscript up to one million people according to various media outlets, will likely increase the number of Jews and their relatives leaving Russia. Historical examples are relevant in that regard too. Jews fled the Soviet Union or relocated within it during the Second World War and helped others arrange their lives in temporary homes or start new lives. It is a key part of Jewish culture to express solidarity with and help other Jews, not to mention hiding them from repressions.

Given those sentiments, Ukraine’s leadership, including Volodymyr Zelenskyy, expected Israel to provide more active support to Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Israeli government did not impose significant sanctions on Moscow and has not provided the expected amount of support at the governmental level, including welcoming more Ukrainians to Israel. For Ukraine, Israel is considered to be one of its role models in terms of its domestic security, army organisation, and the level of people’s military knowledge. In a time of full-scale war, military experience, including spy operations, are important. This decision of Russia might ultimately be a turning point for Israel to offer help to Kyiv, not to Moscow, which Jews are leaving.

Israel’s position

Russia’s move may change the Israeli position and make it cut ties with Russia, or at least hold back on cooperation with Putin’s regime while it suppresses Jews. Speaking about Israel’s assistance to Kyiv, it is expected that it will provide more substantial help to Ukraine. As for now, it is more about private initiatives, not state policy. Since the 1990s, the unwritten rules of normal Israel-Russia relations concerned ensuring that Russian Jews would be free to emigrate to Israel and protecting the rights of those who remained in Russia. That seemed not to be the case this time.

The country faces tough decisions on the international stage, as it does not want to cut ties with Russia, nor forget about Ukraine and its own Jewish population. However, regionally for Israel, Iran is enemy number one today. Therefore, they enthusiastically oppose the lifting of sanctions against Tehran and any potential nuclear activity. Because Russia has already been using Iranian “Shahed 136” kamikaze drones in the Jewish-populated Odesa region to spy on and attack Ukrainian cities, Ukraine and Israel will undoubtedly be interested in collaboration. For example, intelligence sharing is very important and does not require any publicity.

Joining the western sanctions against Russia is a dilemma for Israel. But given the circumstances, it is not the actions of Israeli society or Ukraine that are encouraging Israel to answer this question. It is also quite possible that the EU and the US will eventually ask Israel to make up its mind and choose between opposing or supporting the sanctions.

Vladyslav Faraponov is an analyst and journalist at the Kyiv-based Internews-Ukraine and UkraineWorld.

This article is published in the framework of the “Bohdan Osadchuk Media Platform for Journalists from Ukraine” co-financed by the Polish-American Freedom Foundation as part of the "Support Ukraine” Program implemented by the Education for Democracy Foundation and the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation. 

Texts published as part of this project are available free of charge under open access Creative Commons license. Republishing is allowed under the CC license, however requires attribution and crediting the author and source. 

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