Difficult Position

Before 1948, when the State of Israel declared independence, a shadow Jewish government-in-waiting existed in the British Mandate of Palestine. There was a military organization, the Haganah, whose mission was to protect the Jewish community. There was also a political organization in the Jewish Agency with a hierarchy and leadership who could negotiate with the British as well as other governments.

Before he became prime minister of the new nation, David Ben-Gurion’s title was Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency, although he was the de facto head of the Jewish community in Palestine. Once the State of Israel had an actual government, what was the purpose of the Agency? Rather than disband as an obsolete, but successful group, the Jewish Agency transitioned into a quasi-governmental organization taking on the task of building a Jewish State, particularly in the area of aliyah, Jewish immigration.

A few months ago, Dr. Yizhar Hess, the vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization, spoke in Princeton about the different phases in the history of the Jewish Agency. Before 1948, its mission was to create a Jewish state. After 1948, its mission was to build up that state into a thriving home for the Jewish people. Now that Israel is militarily powerful and economically vibrant, what should its mission be? Hess’s answer is that the Jewish Agency has a role of connecting the strong Jewish communities in Israel and the diaspora.

The Jewish Agency still promotes aliyah, but there is a sense that particularly in places where Jews are not under threat, Jewish education may be even more important. While in the past Israel was seen as a haven for Jews, today it is increasingly a source of inspiration for Jewish identity. So it is of great concern that the government of Russia is seeking to close down the Jewish Agency’s operations in Israel.

In the last few years, the Russian government has railed against non-governmental organizations funded by foreign sources who are accused of trying to unduly influence the nation and undermine it. The Jewish Agency survived these attacks, but now appears to be the victim of fallout from the war in Ukraine. Israel has tried to maintain a difficult balance in the conflict, not wanting to offend Russia, which controls the skies over its neighbor Syria, while also supporting its ally in Ukraine.

Russia understands Israel’s weakness and may be trying to exploit it by threatening to close the Jewish Agency. Although the closure process is one taking place in the court system, the Kremlin has the ability to intervene and may do so if it can extract concessions. It may not be a coincidence that Russia is taking this action after Yair Lapid became prime minister. He was far more critical of Russia’s invasion than his partner, former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

It would be a shame for the Jewish Agency to cease operations in Russia and could spark a diplomatic crisis for the new prime minister. Russia is undoubtedly in weak position of its own as its failed war in Ukraine grinds on, which has led it use all available assets to its advantage. This week the United States proposed a prisoner swap to secure the release of WNBA star Brittany Griner. It seems the Russians have not yet agreed, perhaps looking to secure more for the deal. Whatever happens, a Russia devoid of the Jewish Agency would mean the further isolation of its Jewish community at a time when they need help the most.

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