Russian Jews Sidestep Jewish Agency to Immigrate to Israel

Many Russian Jews are fleeing due to fear of a new Iron Curtain; former Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky says Israel and Russia must reach ‘strategic agreement’
July 27, 2022
Igal and Sophia Sparber at their Window to Jerusalem’ organization, which provides help to Ukrainian refugees and Russian immigrants to Israel. (Maya Margit/The Media Line)

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Often in moments of crisis, people will find a way to get the help they need.

The Jewish Agency for Israel could be shutting its doors soon in Russia, but many Russians are already choosing to immigrate to Israel independently.

One of the agency’s more well-known roles is to facilitate Jewish immigration to Israel. However, many in Russia – spurred by political pressure and fears of a new Iron Curtain – have decided to forgo the long wait times for appointments at the Israeli embassy in Moscow and at the Jewish Agency and are making their own way to Israel.

Ivan Kvasov, a biology teacher, left St. Petersburg for Israel with his wife and son back in March. The family only applied for Israeli citizenship once they landed in the country.

“Everything went very quickly,” Kvasov told The Media Line. “There were some lines and so on but in general everyone supported us.”

Kvasov added that he and his family decided to leave Russia abruptly after it invaded Ukraine in late February. The war, he said, changed the political reality on the ground almost overnight and made life in Russia unbearable.

“Israel needs to confront Putin, together with the entire civilized world, especially since Putin has shown his true face,” Kvasov asserted, adding that Putin’s allies “are Iran, Afghanistan, the Taliban, North Korea and Venezuela. None of these is a friend of Israel.”

Other newly arrived Russians circumvented the long wait times that have been reported at the Jewish Agency in Russia by traveling to Israel as tourists and applying for a change in status as soon as they arrived.

Asya Anistratenko, a freelance translator, and her husband, Kosta, an IT specialist, immigrated to Israel from Moscow last month along with their two kids and two cats.

Because they came on tourist visas rather than through the Jewish Agency, they had to purchase their plane tickets themselves and were only able to bring one suitcase each filled with a few belongings.

“We really hadn’t ever been to Israel before so this was not an easy decision,” said Anistratenko. “We didn’t know what would be here, how we would feel and all the business-related things are not the same as in Russia.”

Anistratenko left behind her brother and her elderly father, whom she described as “tragically pro-Putin.”

“It is hard to talk to him about the situation and [almost] impossible because we don’t want to argue every time we talk,” she said.

Last week, Russia’s Justice Ministry formally appealed to the Moscow District Court, asking for the Jewish Agency to be dissolved.

Former Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, who spent nine years in Soviet prisons in the 1970s and 1980s before being allowed to leave for Israel, told The Media Line that in recent months Russian President Vladimir Putin has undertaken many steps to bring back the Iron Curtain.

“I don’t think that [immigration] from Russia will be stopped, but I do recommend to all those who more or less decided already that their future is not in Russia to make this decision as quickly as possible,” said Sharansky, chair at the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy.

Israel’s Prime Minister Yair Lapid has warned that there would be consequences if Moscow shutters the Jewish Agency. Israel has tried to remain mostly neutral on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, due in part to its need for the consent of Russia – which patrols Syrian airspace – to carry out airstrikes against Iranian terror proxies in Syria.

“It is very unfortunate that the West, in a moment of weakness in the past, permitted Putin to take control of the skies over Syria,” Sharansky said. “In fact, both things – bringing Russian troops to Syria and establishing their bases, and beginning the war against Ukraine – happened at the same, approximately, eight years ago, after Putin decided that the West is very weak after Obama’s decision not to react to the use of chemical weapons in Syria.”

New Organizations Step in To Help With Immigrant Absorption

New organizations have stepped in to help cope with the surge in Ukrainian and Russian immigration that has come about as a result of the war.

The Window to Jerusalem organization, which was founded earlier this year, has so far helped thousands of newcomers settle in. The non-profit group helps immigrants fill out governmental forms, answer questions and find schools for their children, as well as providing legal and financial advice.

According to Igal Sparber, a Jerusalem lawyer and one of the organization’s co-founders, the majority of those moving to Israel are, surprisingly, not Ukrainian refugees, but Russians wishing escape the oppressive political situation back home.

“Today if you want to make an appointment at the Israeli [embassy] in Moscow, you need to wait at least eight months, according to the information that we have,” Sparber revealed. “Most of the people we encounter begin to apply for citizenship once they are already in Israel and not through the Jewish Agency. They come to Israel on their own and settle their status once they’re already here.”

Sparber, who emigrated from Moscow to Israel in 1995 as part of a wave of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, added that the organization is also lobbying the Israeli government to ease the bureaucratic process in regard to the transferring of goods and assets from Russia to Israel.

Window to Jerusalem also has liaisons in Moscow to help those wishing to leave. The organization relies on a network of about 20 volunteers.

Sophia Sparber, Igal’s wife and Window to Jerusalem co-founder, worked at the Ministry of Population and Immigration for 15 years and is no stranger to the issues faced by newcomers.

“Israel’s biggest problem today is that it is not prepared to absorb so many immigrants,” she said. “They view the new Russian immigrants as being the same as those that arrived in the 1990s.”

Sophia Sparber, who moved from Crimea to Israel in 1996, said that Israeli government bodies are overwhelmed at the moment with high demand.

Nearly 20,000 Russians have immigrated to Israel since the start of the year, compared with some 7,800 last year, according to the latest figures released by the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption.

“Since the start of the war tens of thousands of Russians have immigrated to Israel,” Igal Sparber said. “I expect that as the political situation in Russia worsens – the closing of the Jewish Agency is a great example – then the number of immigrants will increase.”

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