Israeli PM warns Russia against shutting down Jewish non-profit organization

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Prime Minister of Israel Yair Lapid on Sunday warned Russia against shutting down a major non-profit organization that encourages Jewish immigration to Israel, saying its forced closure could damage relations between the two countries.

On Thursday, a court hearing is expected in Moscow over the decision of the Russian Ministry of Justice to close the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency.

Lapid said he’s on a mission delegation to Moscow this week that “will make every effort to maximize legal dialogue” around the case.

People gather at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, Israel, to watch a video message from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

People gather at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, Israel, to watch a video message from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
(AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, Poland)

Jewish community in Russia is big and important and pops up in every political conversation with the government in Moscow,” Lapid said in a statement on Sunday. “The closure of the agency’s offices will be a major event that will affect relationships.”

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Tensions between Israel and Russia have risen since Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine in February. Lapid, who served as foreign minister and became interim prime minister this month, accused Russian forces of committing “war crimes against defenseless civilians” in April.

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia Sergei Lavrov has been widely criticized in May, when he said that the fact that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish “does not negate Nazi elements in Ukraine” and that “Hitler also had Jewish blood.” Lapid called it “an unforgivable and outrageous statement”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during their meeting in Sochi.  22 2021.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during their meeting in Sochi. 22 2021.
(EVGENY BIYATOV/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

Lapid’s predecessor, Naftali Bennett, tried to bring peace at the start of the war by holding separate negotiations with Putin and Zelensky.

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Immigration to Israel among Russian Jews has increased since the start of the war: about 17,000 Russians have taken Israeli citizenship since February, according to the Jewish Agency, and another 40,000 have moved to Israel to apply for citizenship. In all of 2021, only about 77,000 Russian Jews moved to Israel.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.