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Leonid Nevzlin, a Russian-born Israeli businessman, investor, and philanthropist, in his office near his private home in Herzliya Pituach, Israel, on May 26.Ohad Zwigenberg /The Globe and Mail

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

“I don’t hate him – I despise him,” he says from his vast villa-like office in Herzliya, a wealthy enclave, popular with wealthy Russians, on the Mediterranean coast just north of Tel Aviv.

Mr. Nevzlin is a Russian Jewish oligarch who was born in Moscow. He made much of his fortune with fellow oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky at oil giant Yukos, where they were the dominant shareholders, during Russia’s feral capitalism era in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

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

Mr. Nevzlin was luckier. As the political and legal heat reached inferno levels, he fled for Israel, where, as a Jew (and a passionate Zionist), he was granted Israeli citizenship.

His exodus started a trend that has accelerated since Russia seized Crimea in 2014, and accelerated again after Mr. Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. Since the war began, Israel has welcomed tens of thousands of Russian and other former Soviet Union Jews, many of them wealthy, some exceedingly so.

One of the biggest residential compounds in Herzliya, only a few minutes’ walk from Mr. Nevzlin’s residence, belongs to Roman Abramovich, the oligarch under Western sanctions who owns the Premier League’s Chelsea Football Club and a fleet of superyachts that make Canadian Navy frigates look like dinghies.

Mr. Abramovich four years ago received Israeli citizenship. Two other high-profile, sanctioned Russian oligarchs have also obtained Israeli citizenship: Alfa Bank co-founders German Khan and Mikhail Fridman.

Citizenship comes with potentially enormous financial benefits for the wealthy. Israel has condemned Russia’s war against Ukraine but not to the point of joining the West’s sanctions campaign. Israel apparently fears provoking the ire of Mr. Putin, compromising the economic ties between the two countries and – crucially – the opportunity to bomb Iranian targets in Syria, whose airspace is controlled by Russia. New immigrants to Israel – wealthy or not – receive a 10-year exemption from paying taxes on income earned abroad.

Israel is going out of its way to attract Russian and other former Soviet Jews, many of whom are highly educated and professionally skilled, even if they are not millionaires or billionaires.

Israel’s “Law of Return,” also known as aliyah, grants new immigrants fairly speedy Israeli citizenship if they can prove Jewish bloodline, specifically that at least one of their grandparents was Jewish. The government will even pay for their hotel once they land in Israel – Russia’s Aeroflot and Israel’s El Al still fly between Moscow and Tel Aviv – and subsidize their apartment rents for about half a year.

The upshot is that the war is reinforcing Israel’s status as a haven for Jewish immigrants, and reinforcing the Israeli economy. “They are a positive for the economy,” says Mark Oigman, a Moldavian Jew who is the chief executive of SmartGen, an Israeli company that helps wealthy new Jewish arrivals obtain Israeli citizenship and tax status, open bank and investment accounts and buy properties and businesses. “They represent new money and are smart people with business experience. They have a global view and speak English.”

Mr. Nevzlin, 62, agrees the immigrants, which he calls “Putin’s Aliyah,” will help the economy. But escaping a country – Russia – that is plummeting into recession as the sanctions inflict their damage is not the only reason behind the Jewish exodus. Many others fundamentally oppose Mr. Putin and are appalled by his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, to the point that they are embarrassed to be Russian.

Mr. Nevzlin left Russia for fear of being prosecuted, not for moral reasons. He was tried in absentia and found guilty of several counts of conspiracy to murder and was sentenced to life in prison in 2008. Six years later, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, an arbitral tribunal based in The Hague, ruled in favour of Yukos’s former leading shareholders, including Mr. Nevzlin, calling the Russian government’s legal pursuit of the duo “a ruthless campaign to destroy Yukos and expropriate its assets.”

Leonid Nevzlin's office in Herzliya Pituach.Ohad Zwigenberg /The Globe and Mail

Since then, Mr. Nevzlin, now a noted philanthropist in Israel and the owner of 25 per cent of the liberal-leaning Haaretz media group, has taken an aggressive anti-Putin stance, making him one of the few oligarchs with the courage – or audacity – to heap abuse on the Russian leader. During my talk with him, he called Mr. Putin a “psychopath” and a “criminal guy” who is “very dangerous.” He has been photographed in a “Put In Jail” T-shirt. He thinks Russia could descend into civil war if the sanctions trigger a deep recession that shreds corporate and personal wealth.

He feels so strongly that the war is immoral, and that Mr. Putin is a madman, that he recently announced he will renounce his Russian citizenship – no easy process. “For me, it’s emotional,” he says. “I do not consider myself a citizen of Putin’s Russia. I’m finished with Russia.”

Is Russia finished with him? Mr. Nevzlin admits he fears that Mr. Putin’s thugs could target him. “I worry about it,” he says. “I want to live. My security people bear in mind that I am always in danger.”

Israel’s efforts to lure Soviet and former Soviet Jews is nothing new. The Ukraine war created an unexpected opportunity to attract more of them.

Since the 1960s, even earlier, Soviet Jews have trickled into Israel. “The emigration was usually for economic reasons,” says Moscow-born Yaakov Kedmi, 75, a pro-Kremlin former Israeli diplomat who was the head of Nativ, the Israeli government liaison office that kept in contact with Soviet Jews and encouraged them to migrate to Israel to bolster the Zionist dream and the economy. He notes the compelling attractions of the United States and Canada did not make Israel’s job easy.

Israel at times paid foreign governments to allow Jews to leave. The Washington Post reported in 1990 that Israel paid US$60-million in cash to Romania over 22 years to “buy” 120,000 Romanian Jews; half of the amount was believed to have gone to Romania’s then-dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. Doctors and engineers were reportedly the most expensive purchases for Israel.

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

The figure was enormous. At the time, Israel had a population of five million, about 80 per cent of them Jews, the rest Arabs. “Israel became the 16th republic of the Soviet Union,” Roman Bronfman, 68, a Ukrainian-born former member of Yisreal BaAliyah, a now-defunct political party that was formed in 1996 to represent the interest of Russian immigrants, tells me.

Mr. Bronfman, who says he is a distant relative of the Montreal Bronfmans who once controlled the Seagram booze empire, was only half joking. He has studied the Russian phenomenon in Israel and, in 2013, co-wrote a book about it called The Million That Changed The Middle East. He says the Soviet-era Jews – their intellectual firepower, their ambition and (at the time) generally pro-Russia views – formed a powerful bloc that reshaped Israel socially, demographically and economically.

Mr. Bronfman says that three-quarters of the arrivals had university degrees – then double the Israeli level – and 90 per cent came from big, international cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kyiv. Many of the young arrivals found jobs in the Israeli tech sector. “They did not come with money but they came with a great desire to succeed,” he said. “By 1998, almost half of the tech employees here were Russian – Russian brains backed by American money.”

Their enormous voting power, which was used to endorse various parties and ideologies at various times, helped to win elections for Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu. “The Russian votes changed the traditional left-right balance in Israel,” says Mr. Bronfman.

The exact number of new arrivals since the Ukraine war began is not known, since some of them already had Israeli citizenship and would technically not be classified as refugees or new immigrants. The figure is certainly in the tens of thousands. Mr. Oigman, of SmartGen, believes about 40,000 Russian and Ukrainian Jews have arrived since late February, of whom more than 5,000 are millionaires, he estimated. “They think it is dangerous to be in Russia, and that Russia will close the borders,” he says. “Russia is losing a lot of good, smart people.”

The city of Rishon LeZion, which lies about 10 kilometres south of Tel Aviv and has a population of 250,000, was founded in the 1880s by Jewish immigrants from the Russian empire. Today, it is attracting thousands of new arrivals, mostly those who are not rich and cannot afford Tel Aviv (often ranked as the world’s most expensive city).

At an outdoor café on a pleasant residential street, I meet Irina Portnaya, 47, and her husband Mikhail Savinor, 44, the parents of two teenage boys who left St. Petersburg for Israel on March 11. They are representative of the new breed of Jewish immigrants who are fleeing Russia and Ukraine: Not rich but ambitious, educated, skilled, worldly, freedom-seeking and English-speaking.

Ms. Portnaya was born near St. Petersburg and is a classical pianist; Mr. Portnaya comes from Odesa, Ukraine, and trained as a marine biologist. His career took a strange turn after graduation and he now works as a chess and poker journalist. They met in Norway and raised their boys in St. Petersburg.

For several years, they fantasized about leaving Russia, partly because they wanted to explore their Jewish heritage, partly because they felt that Russia was turning into an authoritarian state. “Russia started becoming much less bearable in about 2016,” Mr. Savinor says. “They started to create strange laws, closed websites and labelled people they don’t like as ‘foreign agents.’ ”

When the war started, they went into a low-grade panic, fearing that their sons would face compulsory military service in a couple of years if the war dragged on. “It was crazy that the country I lived in was attacking the country I was born in for no logical reason,” he says. “My aunt’s house in Ukraine was destroyed by a missile strike in March.”

Expecting Russia to close its borders, they bolted, leaving behind a furnished apartment. They walked across the border to Estonia, their knapsacks stuffed with cash, flew to Norway, then to Tel Aviv via Warsaw. Their arrival was not complicated because Ms. Portnaya came with proof that her parents and grandparents were Jewish. “It took less than a week for us to get our Israeli IDs,” she says.

They are now learning Hebrew and building a new life. “It already feels like home here,” says Ms. Portnaya. “I had been mentally preparing for this trip for decades. Israel represents opportunities for us. It’s a dream country.”


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