On Wednesday, September 21, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for the conscription of 300,000 reserve soldiers, forcing men between the ages of 18-65 to receive permission from the Russian Defense Ministry before leaving the country. This has caused a major exit, with long lines at Russian borders, and air flights sold out.
What does this mean for the thousands of Russian Jews that have Aliyah status and cannot get out of the country?
Eli Nacht, Deputy Mayor of Ashdod, shares a law office with his wife in Israel, that deals with Aliyah, citizenship, residency, visas, and issues concerning the Ministry of Interior (MOI). He claims, “The phone has not stopped ringing. Definitely, I can assure you that there is a huge panic among people there, and the people are trying to run away before the “iron curtain” is being closed – like it was in the Soviet Union 30 years ago.”
Nacht says this is a humanitarian catastrophe on a psychological, personal, and economic level. Not only are Jews fleeing the country, but most Russian men, in general, do not want to fight in Putin’s war against the Ukraine. A friend from the Georgian government told Nacht that during seven hours on Wednesday night, about 18,500 Russian residents crossed the border from Russia into Georgia.
Israel’s Prime Minister Yair Lapid requested that El Al increase its flights to Russia, but it is not clear whether Putin will allow it and at what price.
Nacht thinks that the price will be high for Israel to receive permission to rescue Jews from Russia, and will involve political leveraging. “I believe we are going to face a big dilemma. On the one hand we have our national interests in bringing home Jewish people from Russia. On the other hand, we have our moral obligation, trying to help, in humanitarian ways, the Ukrainian people. I believe that one of the conditions for being able to bring home our Jewish People and help the Jewish community, will be to completely stay out of the business of Russia in the Ukrainian war.”
Lapid, when he was Israel’s Foreign Minister, and when he first became Prime Minister, spoke out against Russia’s policies. Then, when he realized the high national strategic interests at stake with Putin, he became quiet. Putin knows, clearly, what Israel’s interests are in terms of Syria, Iran, and Diaspora Jewish communities.
Nacht acknowledges that Putin is using his power to put pressure on Israel. “Putin has his own interest in this conflict. We will have to bargain.”
Nacht says when it comes to Russia’s Jews, the people need to be capable of being able to live their own lives, have their homes, their work, and their financial assets. Putin puts major limits on how much money the Russian people can withdraw from their bank accounts when leaving the country. No matter how limited, Russian Jews are at risk if they stay. Nacht suggests, “Eventually, they should leave everything they can, and go, in a matter of days!”
Nacht explains that to get the Jews out of Russia, Nativ, the government department dealing with immigration from the former Soviet Union, has to issue visas. “Their only way, for now, is going to Nativ. In order to make Aliyah into Israel, Nativ is the only authority that is allowed to give you a visa. Nativ was thinking and foreseeing this situation in Russia; that the borders might be closed.”
Therefore, Nativ opened offices in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and other countries, so that Jews could finish their immigration process, if necessary, across the borders. The focus now is on Nativ, and their authority could be problematic inside Russia as thousands of Jews and others flee the country.
Recent reports indicate that 80,000 Jews have applied for Aliyah, and about half that many have received their papers to immigrate. But, Nacht says that no agency really knows how many Russian Jews are eligible to make Aliyah. “Many of the people, because of the regime, hid their Jewish identity. No one knows the exact number… maybe half a million people.”
Russia is considered the biggest Jewish community after the United States. The second biggest Jewish community in the world.
“It is not something we can neglect,” Nacht states. “There are a few channels that are working right now – diplomatic channels, secret channels, security channels — and I am sure the government and ministers that are relative to this situation, are into it completely.”
As far as Israeli citizens, living in Russia or visiting there, 150,000-200,000 of them are currently in the country.
Nacht expects that the flow of people to the borders will continue. “If you ask me, I believe that many of the citizens, not just Jews, but people who are Russian citizens can go to all Soviet countries. They don’t need a visa to go there. They can cross the borders. Russian citizens have options. The Jews will react as other citizens. They will try to save their lives.”
Arkady Mil-Man is the head of the Russian program at the INSS (Institute for National Security Studies) in Israel. He is a former Israeli ambassador to Russia. Mil-Man states, “First of all, in any situation, I call the Jews to make Aliyah as I did 47 years ago, and I think it is the right place for the Jewish population in the world to live in Israel. It’s my opinion and it’s my ideology.”
Acknowledging the new law that Russian citizens will now have to abide by, including those with Jewish origin, Mil-Man claims that after Putin’s speech, regarding the mobilization of the population for the war in Ukraine, “The situation is worse. It will be very very dangerous for everyone to be on the front line.”
Mil-Man spoke to a friend with only Israeli citizenship who left Russia after Putin’s new orders. Standing in line in the airport to get on his flight, his friend was asked by the military police if he had permission to leave or not. This interrogation procedure has already been implemented since Putin signed a special decree on Wednesday concerning the mobilization orders.
The whole Russian population understands they will have to participate in the war in Ukraine, but it is not a popular war, according to Mil-Man. Still, he believes that the Russian government will continue the process of mobilization. “They will try to convince people. They will sign the documents, and we will see how they can recruit that many people. It will not be in a few days.”
Iranian and Russian expert, Alex Grinberg from JISS (Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security), grew up in Moscow, speaks the language, and understands the various ways that Putin operates. He shared with this writer about the limitations on Russian Jews, who count the cost in leaving the country. “You can only bring limited amounts of money from your bank, and you come to Israel poor.”
Many Russians are professionals, but become poor war refugees in Israel, according to Grinberg. Still, he estimates that in this current situation, whoever can leave and doesn’t, without good reason (like taking care of elderly parents), must pay for their choices.
This includes Russian Jews who have made Aliyah, lived in Israel for some time, and then decide to go back to Russia to do business. In one scenario, a family made Aliyah in July 2021. They stayed in an apartment of Israelis who, specifically, host new immigrants from the Diaspora. The Russian family was wealthy and went back and forth to Russia to make sure their businesses were safe, as well as to take care of financial issues with their bank, and health problems with their daughter. Unfortunately, in the midst of them being in Russia, Putin issued his mobilization decree. The husband in the family had to flee to Kazakhstan. He made it out safely, but now he is working to get his family out of Russia, too.
Many Russian Israeli businessmen, with current ties to Russia, must count the cost of traveling to that nation since Putin’s mobilization decree, as they may not be able to get out. This will affect business ties between both countries.
Furthermore, any non-profit group that is inside Russia, working as foreigners, are also fleeing the country, as Putin cracks down on internationals. Jewish and Israeli organizations working in Russia have, until recently, been mostly immune to the wave of regulations Putin has instituted against NGO’s. This was due to Israel’s efforts to keep a neutral position regarding the Russian-Ukraine war.
However, as Lapid distanced himself from Putin’s position on the conflict, and showed Israel to be more supportive of Ukraine, the Kremlin stopped the freedom of communications between Jewish groups and Israel. Russia’s recent limitation on the activities of the Jewish Agency in Russia is one example. The agency has let many of its employees go on paid leave, and reportedly, has not communicated with the Jewish Agency’s global center in Jerusalem since September 14, because of strict information laws. This continues to hamper the Aliyah process for Russia’s Jewish population.
Nacht warns of the continued need for bordering countries to remain open for the Russian people who are fleeing. “We all pray for the safety of those people, especially the Jewish community.” He adds that Israelis need to urge their family and friends in Russia to get out. “Leave everything as it is, as soon as possible, and run away. It isn’t worth it to stay.”