Israeli PM warns Russia against shutting down Jewish nonprofit

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

A court hearing is expected in Moscow on Thursday about the Russian Justice Ministry's move to shut down the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency.

Lapid said he is sending a delegation to Moscow this week that will "make every effort to maximize the legal dialogue" around the case.

"The Jewish community in Russia is large and important and comes up in every political conversation with the government in Moscow," Lapid said in a statement on Sunday. "The closing of the agency's offices will be a serious event, which will affect relations."

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Tensions have grown between Israel and Russia since Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine in February. Lapid, who served as foreign minister before becoming the interim prime minister this month, accused Russian forces of committing "war crimes against a defenseless civilian population" in April.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was widely criticized in May when he said the fact that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish "does not negate the 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, on Oct. 22 2021. <span class="copyright">YEVGENY BIYATOV/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images</span>
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during their meeting, in Sochi, on Oct. 22 2021. YEVGENY BIYATOV/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Lapid's predecessor, Naftali Bennett, attempted to mediate peace early in the war, holding separate talks with Putin and Zelenskyy.

Immigration to Israel among Russian Jews has picked up since the war began, with about 17,000 Russians taking Israeli citizenship and another 40,000 moving to Israel to apply for citizenship since February, according to the Jewish Agency. In all of 2021, only about 7,7000 Russian Jews moved to Israel.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.