June 30, 2022

Leonid Nevzlin, a Russian-born Israeli businessman, investor, and philanthropist, in his workplace close to his personal dwelling in Herzliya Pituach, Israel, on Could 26.Ohad Zwigenberg /The Globe and Mail

Leonid Nevzlin implies that I ought to rephrase the query I had put to him: Do you hate Russian President Vladimir Putin?

“I don’t hate him – I despise him,” he says from his huge villa-like workplace in Herzliya, a rich enclave, widespread with rich Russians, on the Mediterranean coast simply north of Tel Aviv.

Mr. Nevzlin is a Russian Jewish oligarch who was born in Moscow. He made a lot of his fortune with fellow oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky at oil large Yukos, the place they had been the dominant shareholders, throughout Russia’s feral capitalism period within the late Nineties and early 2000s.

In 2003, a Kremlin-backed investigation into Yukos turned aggressive and took on political overtones – each Mr. Khodorkovsky and Mr. Nevzlin had supported democratic opposition to Mr. Putin. Mr. Khodorkovsky ended up in jail for nearly a decade on costs of fraud and, later, cash laundering and embezzlement. Yukos was dismantled.

Mr. Nevzlin was luckier. Because the political and authorized warmth reached inferno ranges, he fled for Israel, the place, as a Jew (and a passionate Zionist), he was granted Israeli citizenship.

His exodus began a development that has accelerated since Russia seized Crimea in 2014, and accelerated once more after Mr. Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. Because the warfare started, Israel has welcomed tens of hundreds of Russian and different former Soviet Union Jews, lots of them rich, some exceedingly so.

One of many greatest residential compounds in Herzliya, only some minutes’ stroll from Mr. Nevzlin’s residence, belongs to Roman Abramovich, the oligarch beneath Western sanctions who owns the Premier League’s Chelsea Soccer Membership and a fleet of superyachts that make Canadian Navy frigates appear like dinghies.

Mr. Abramovich 4 years in the past acquired Israeli citizenship. Two different high-profile, sanctioned Russian oligarchs have additionally obtained Israeli citizenship: Alfa Financial institution co-founders German Khan and Mikhail Fridman.

Citizenship comes with doubtlessly huge monetary advantages for the rich. Israel has condemned Russia’s warfare in opposition to Ukraine however to not the purpose of becoming a member of the West’s sanctions marketing campaign. Israel apparently fears frightening the ire of Mr. Putin, compromising the financial ties between the 2 international locations and – crucially – the chance to bomb Iranian targets in Syria, whose airspace is managed by Russia. New immigrants to Israel – rich or not – obtain a 10-year exemption from paying taxes on earnings earned overseas.

Israel goes out of its option to entice Russian and different former Soviet Jews, lots of whom are extremely educated and professionally expert, even when they aren’t millionaires or billionaires.

Israel’s “Legislation of Return,” often known as aliyah, grants new immigrants pretty speedy Israeli citizenship if they will show Jewish bloodline, particularly that no less than certainly one of their grandparents was Jewish. The federal government will even pay for his or her lodge as soon as they land in Israel – Russia’s Aeroflot and Israel’s El Al nonetheless fly between Moscow and Tel Aviv – and subsidize their residence rents for about half a yr.

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The upshot is that the warfare is reinforcing Israel’s standing as a haven for Jewish immigrants, and reinforcing the Israeli economic system. “They’re a constructive for the economic system,” says Mark Oigman, a Moldavian Jew who’s the chief government of SmartGen, an Israeli firm that helps rich new Jewish arrivals acquire Israeli citizenship and tax standing, open financial institution and funding accounts and purchase properties and companies. “They symbolize new cash and are sensible individuals with enterprise expertise. They’ve a world view and converse English.”

Mr. Nevzlin, 62, agrees the immigrants, which he calls “Putin’s Aliyah,” will assist the economic system. However escaping a rustic – Russia – that’s plummeting into recession because the sanctions inflict their harm shouldn’t be the one purpose behind the Jewish exodus. Many others essentially oppose Mr. Putin and are appalled by his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, to the purpose that they’re embarrassed to be Russian.

Mr. Nevzlin left Russia for concern of being prosecuted, not for ethical causes. He was tried in absentia and located responsible of a number of counts of conspiracy to homicide and was sentenced to life in jail in 2008. Six years later, the Everlasting Court docket of Arbitration, an arbitral tribunal primarily based in The Hague, dominated in favour of Yukos’s former main shareholders, together with Mr. Nevzlin, calling the Russian authorities’s authorized pursuit of the duo “a ruthless marketing campaign to destroy Yukos and expropriate its property.”

Leonid Nevzlin’s workplace in Herzliya Pituach.Ohad Zwigenberg /The Globe and Mail

Since then, Mr. Nevzlin, now a famous philanthropist in Israel and the proprietor of 25 per cent of the liberal-leaning Haaretz media group, has taken an aggressive anti-Putin stance, making him one of many few oligarchs with the braveness – or audacity – to heap abuse on the Russian chief. Throughout my speak with him, he referred to as Mr. Putin a “psychopath” and a “felony man” who’s “very harmful.” He has been photographed in a “Put In Jail” T-shirt. He thinks Russia may descend into civil warfare if the sanctions set off a deep recession that shreds company and private wealth.

He feels so strongly that the warfare is immoral, and that Mr. Putin is a madman, that he not too long ago introduced he’ll surrender his Russian citizenship – no straightforward course of. “For me, it’s emotional,” he says. “I don’t take into account myself a citizen of Putin’s Russia. I’m completed with Russia.”

Is Russia completed with him? Mr. Nevzlin admits he fears that Mr. Putin’s thugs may goal him. “I fear about it,” he says. “I wish to dwell. My safety individuals keep in mind that I’m all the time at risk.”

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Israel’s efforts to lure Soviet and former Soviet Jews is nothing new. The Ukraine warfare created an sudden alternative to draw extra of them.

Because the Sixties, even earlier, Soviet Jews have trickled into Israel. “The emigration was often for financial causes,” says Moscow-born Yaakov Kedmi, 75, a pro-Kremlin former Israeli diplomat who was the top of Nativ, the Israeli authorities liaison workplace that stored in touch with Soviet Jews and inspired them emigrate to Israel to bolster the Zionist dream and the economic system. He notes the compelling sights of the USA and Canada didn’t make Israel’s job straightforward.

Israel at instances paid international governments to permit Jews to go away. The Washington Publish reported in 1990 that Israel paid US$60-million in money to Romania over 22 years to “purchase” 120,000 Romanian Jews; half of the quantity was believed to have gone to Romania’s then-dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. Medical doctors and engineers had been reportedly the costliest purchases for Israel.

The most important wave of arrivals began in late 1989, when the Soviet Union started to crumble (it ceased to exist in late 1991). Between then and about 2010, Israel absorbed a million immigrants from Russia and different former Soviet republics; the Legislation of Return gave them Israeli citizenship.

The determine was huge. On the time, Israel had a inhabitants of 5 million, about 80 per cent of them Jews, the remainder Arabs. “Israel grew to become the sixteenth republic of the Soviet Union,” Roman Bronfman, 68, a Ukrainian-born former member of Yisreal BaAliyah, a now-defunct political occasion that was fashioned in 1996 to symbolize the curiosity of Russian immigrants, tells me.

Mr. Bronfman, who says he’s a distant relative of the Montreal Bronfmans who as soon as managed the Seagram booze empire, was solely half joking. He has studied the Russian phenomenon in Israel and, in 2013, co-wrote a ebook about it referred to as The Million That Modified The Center East. He says the Soviet-era Jews – their mental firepower, their ambition and (on the time) typically pro-Russia views – fashioned a robust bloc that reshaped Israel socially, demographically and economically.

Mr. Bronfman says that three-quarters of the arrivals had college levels – then double the Israeli stage – and 90 per cent got here from massive, worldwide cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kyiv. Most of the younger arrivals discovered jobs within the Israeli tech sector. “They didn’t include cash however they got here with a terrific need to succeed,” he stated. “By 1998, nearly half of the tech workers right here had been Russian – Russian brains backed by American cash.”

Their huge voting energy, which was used to endorse varied events and ideologies at varied instances, helped to win elections for Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu. “The Russian votes modified the standard left-right steadiness in Israel,” says Mr. Bronfman.

The precise variety of new arrivals because the Ukraine warfare started shouldn’t be identified, since a few of them already had Israeli citizenship and would technically not be categorized as refugees or new immigrants. The determine is actually within the tens of hundreds. Mr. Oigman, of SmartGen, believes about 40,000 Russian and Ukrainian Jews have arrived since late February, of whom greater than 5,000 are millionaires, he estimated. “They suppose it’s harmful to be in Russia, and that Russia will shut the borders,” he says. “Russia is shedding a whole lot of good, sensible individuals.”

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Town of Rishon LeZion, which lies about 10 kilometres south of Tel Aviv and has a inhabitants of 250,000, was based within the Eighties by Jewish immigrants from the Russian empire. Right now, it’s attracting hundreds of recent arrivals, largely those that aren’t wealthy and can’t afford Tel Aviv (usually ranked because the world’s costliest metropolis).

At an out of doors café on a pleasing residential road, I meet Irina Portnaya, 47, and her husband Mikhail Savinor, 44, the mother and father of two teenage boys who left St. Petersburg for Israel on March 11. They’re consultant of the brand new breed of Jewish immigrants who’re fleeing Russia and Ukraine: Not wealthy however bold, educated, expert, worldly, freedom-seeking and English-speaking.

Ms. Portnaya was born close to St. Petersburg and is a classical pianist; Mr. Portnaya comes from Odesa, Ukraine, and educated as a marine biologist. His profession took a wierd flip after commencement and he now works as a chess and poker journalist. They met in Norway and raised their boys in St. Petersburg.

For a number of years, they fantasized about leaving Russia, partly as a result of they needed to discover their Jewish heritage, partly as a result of they felt that Russia was turning into an authoritarian state. “Russia began changing into a lot much less bearable in about 2016,” Mr. Savinor says. “They began to create unusual legal guidelines, closed web sites and labelled individuals they don’t like as ‘international brokers.’ ”

When the warfare began, they went right into a low-grade panic, fearing that their sons would face obligatory army service in a few years if the warfare dragged on. “It was loopy that the nation I lived in was attacking the nation I used to be born in for no logical purpose,” he says. “My aunt’s home in Ukraine was destroyed by a missile strike in March.”

Anticipating Russia to shut its borders, they bolted, forsaking a furnished residence. They walked throughout the border to Estonia, their knapsacks full of money, flew to Norway, then to Tel Aviv by way of Warsaw. Their arrival was not sophisticated as a result of Ms. Portnaya got here with proof that her mother and father and grandparents had been Jewish. “It took lower than every week for us to get our Israeli IDs,” she says.

They’re now studying Hebrew and constructing a brand new life. “It already appears like dwelling right here,” says Ms. Portnaya. “I had been mentally making ready for this journey for many years. Israel represents alternatives for us. It’s a dream nation.”


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