Middle East | 17 May 2022

Russia/Israel: Tensions rise over church control and anti-semitic comments

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Two recent developments have put the relationship between Russia and Israel under particular strain:
  1. April 2022: A letter from Russian President Putin sent to the Israeli government in April has requested that it goes ahead with the transfer of an historic Orthodox church in the Old City of Jerusalem to Russian custody. The Church of St. Alexander Nevsky was supposed to be handed over to Russia as part of a deal two years ago to win the release of an Israeli-American, who had been detained in Russia on drug charges (Haaretz, 19 April 2022).
  2. ii) 1 May 2022: Statements perceived as being anti-semitic were made by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov when asked how Russia could claim that it needed to "˜de-Nazify" Ukraine when the country's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, was Jewish (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 2 May 2022). On 5 May, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett stated that President Putin had telephoned to apologize for the remarks (The Guardian, 5 May 2022).
World Watch Research analyst Rolf Zeegers comments: "These developments would seem to indicate that Russia is not particularly worried about keeping up good relations with Israel. Handing the church over to Russian control would be considered a controversial move in light of other nations enacting sanctions on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine. The Russian government is anyway probably more interested in improving ties with other Middle Eastern countries who are in more of a position to help Russia survive the effects of the economic sanctions imposed by the West. But will there also be negative effects on the Jewish community in Russia itself? According to the World Christian Database there are only about 129,000 Jews in Russia (out of a total population of 145.8 million people). With the Russian ministers acting so undiplomatically towards Israel and Jews in general, it is most likely that some repercussions will be felt by the Jewish community, probably in the form of intimidation or damage to property."


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