Feud over Russian Tycoon’s Role Disrupts European Jewish Meeting

A fight over the role of a Russian tycoon at the recent European Jewish Congress general assembly is threatening to overshadow the organization’s political agenda. The EJC’s president, Pierre Besnainou, accused the Russian Jewish Congress’ president, Moshe Kantor, of engaging in “blackmail” at the Feb. 19 meeting after the latter said he would give the organization a donation of $475,000 only if he could have oversight of money that he brought in from donors in his role as chairman of the board of governors.

The vice president of the EJC, Ariel Muzicant, concurred with Besnainou, suggesting that Kantor was trying to thwart democracy. “There can only be one president, and what Mr. Kantor wants is to take over without being elected.”

The squabble came as the EJC is trying to have a greater influence on key European political leaders in issues of Middle East policy and anti-Semitism, which have leapt to the top of the European political agenda in recent months.

Some European Jewish leaders privately worry that Kantor, owner of one of Russia’s largest fertilizer firms, is a mafia mogul seeking to take over the EJC with his large donations. He already claims he is the EJC’s largest personal donor, providing the organization with more than $175,000 annually.

Kantor, 52, made his fortune in the metal business in the first years after the fall of communism, relying largely on connections he made with top government officials under former President Boris Yeltsin. Israeli police recently questioned Kantor in Jerusalem together with several other so-called Russian oligarchs, reportedly over concerns of money laundering, although an official investigation was not launched.

Kantor and his supporters, mostly delegates from the former Eastern Bloc, counter that Besnainou, who is French, is a Western European on a power trip who is unwilling to recognize what donors want.

“Am I supposed to find donors with mental illnesses? Those are the only ones who would give their money to an organization without knowing form the beginning where their money is going to go,” Kantor said in a phone interview following the general assembly.

As for trading his money for influence, Kantor responded, “Who is the largest donor to the World Jewish Congress? Edgar Bronfman. And he is the president too, right? What do you think would happen if the others at the World Jewish Congress told him to take his money and go to hell?”

Kantor left the meeting early after a new set of bylaws that would have given him oversight of donor money failed to pass among the delegates from the 40 European Jewish community federations the EJC represents.

Despite its internal strife, the organization in the last year displayed newfound success at forging ties with key E.U. commissioners and prime ministers in their lobbying efforts for Jewish and Israeli causes. The 20-year-old EJC, a World Jewish Congress affiliate, was at least partly responsible for helping to stop a major neo-Nazi march in Greece in 2005.

EJC projects for the coming year include establishing a European research and action center on anti-Semitism in Brussels, a colloquium of European intellectuals in Budapest in the spring and an interfaith dialogue between Muslims and Jews.

The organization, with a proposed budget of roughly $1.3 million, is still $475,000 short of the money it needs to fund this year’s projects, the exact amount Kantor had been willing to donate, according to Besnainou.

The conflict over Kantor comes just at a time when Besnainou was trying to redefine the EJC and make it more independent of the World Jewish Congress. He has repeatedly stressed that European Jews, not Americans, should be talking to European politicians about Israel.

Instead of elaborating on future projects, however, delegates spent a large portion of the general assembly hashing out the battle of the bylaws, a conflict over Kantor’s role that began last year after the general assembly elected Besnainou president.

From the start of his term, he made it clear that he disapproved of the move by his predecessor, Italy’s Kobi Benatoff, who rewarded Kantor’s generosity to the EJC by making him chairman of the board of governors, a move narrowly approved by delegates.

Kantor earned kudos spending millions of his own dollars organizing a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary liberation of Auschwitz, an event attended by 42 heads of state.

“The problem was there were no rules defining Mr. Kantor’s post and every functioning organization needs rules,” Besnainou said.

Proposed bylaws backed by Besnainou, which made Kantor a fund-raiser who would answer to the president, failed to pass in Vienna. However, a last-minute resolution was passed that gave the EJC executive, not Kantor, the right to appoint the yet-to-exist board of governors.

It is uncertain how the debate over Kantor’s influence will affect the EJC in the long term.

Stephen Herbits, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, expressed his annoyance that the dispute, which had also been the main theme of last year’s general assembly, was continuing.

“There is this endless discussion of bylaws that takes away from real issues. This has been going on in this organization for years. Meanwhile Europe is facing an entirely new set of challenges — for the first time Europe is playing a decisive role in the Middle East — and this is what the EJC should be focusing on,” he said.

“The EJC needs a whole new approach, a whole new structure, to deal with the challenges of Jews in Europe today,” he added.

Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary general of the EJC, denied that dispute over bylaws would harm the EJC’s efficacy. “The European Constitution didn’t pass but the E.U. is still there, isn’t it?”

He acknowledged that the EJC still depends on the WJC for the vast majority of its funding. The whole point of creating a board of governors, really donors, is to help the organization become more financially independent and to raise money at a time when a resurgence of anti-Semitism, the threat of Hamas and Iran requires new resources.

In the end, Kantor may still be a key source of funding for the organization.

Last year, he founded the European Jewish Fund with, millions of dollars from his own resources.

“The fund is ready to support European Jewish Congress as well as any Jewish community in Europe if the projects are good.”

Another issue posed by the internal strife in the EJC is the greater desire of Russia and former Eastern bloc countries to have a greater say in European Jewish organizations that were previously dominated by the British, French and Italians.

Kantor noted that Russia has third largest number of Jews in Europe after France and Britain.

Stephen Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, is no stranger to dealing with Russian Jews in his native country. He said he understood why some felt Kantor was being too easily pushed aside.

“All the Russians want is a little respect,” he said.

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