Vienna, October 15 – Moscow has closed the St. Petersburg and Novosibirsk offices of Israel’s Nativ organization that helps arrange the return of Jews to Israel, an action that Israeli papers and human rights activists say will make it far more difficult for Jews in the Russian Federation who want to leave.
This action follows the departure at the end of September of Shmuel Polishchuk, the Israeli consul in Moscow who oversaw the work of Nativ, and according to a report in yesterday’s “Ma’ariv, the closure of these two offices will make it difficult, if not impossible for more than 200 Russian Jews now seeking the documents they need to leave.
According to the Israeli paper, Russian officials in recent months have “repeatedly complained” that Nativ staffers have “exceeded” their authority as defined by the Russian government’s agreement with Israel concerning the organization’s role in realizing “the right of return” (www.newsru.co.il/world/14oct2009/nativ301.html).
The Russian government, according to “Ma’ariv” journalist Eli Bardenstein, avoided “a scandal” in the case of Polishchuk by not declaring him persona non grata but simply allowing Israel to recall him from his post. But this latest Russian move against the Nativ offices raises the stakes.
Nativ has a long history. An Israeli government institution directly subordinate to the prime minister’s office, it was created in 1952 as the Bureau for Ties with Jews of the USSR and Eastern Europe. Since 1991, it has been known as the Bureau for Ties with Jews of the CIS and the Baltic Countries (www.newsru.co.il/world/01oct2009/pol_101.html).
In Soviet times, the group sought to develop contacts with Jews in the Soviet bloc, but after the end of the USSR, it became more directly involved in promoting the right of return, an effort that brought it into conflict on occasion with the Israeli foreign ministry and non-governmental organizations like the Jewish Agency.
A decade ago, the Israeli government formally cut links between Nativ and the Israeli intelligence services, but Russian officials appear to have assumed that in one way or another those ties continue. In any case, now Moscow has moved against an organization that played a key role in helping Jews from the post-Soviet countries go to Israel.
This Russian action will be a test of just how effective will be the efforts of some countries to address problems with Moscow via diplomatic channels rather than by making publically explicit what should be Western concerns about the Russian government’s increasing disregard for the rights of Jews and other groups there.