The election this week of the first Eastern European to the helm of the European Jewish Congress is fueling speculation that the 20-year-old organization will expand its focus beyond issues relating to anti-Semitism, Israel and other Middle East flashpoints.
Moshe Kantor, president of the Russian Jewish Congress, scored a large victory in the Tuesday vote that capped what had evolved into a bitter contest with the incumbent, Tunisian-born Frenchman Pierre Besnainou.
Kantor, 53, will lead the only pan-European Jewish organization devoted primarily to lobbying politicians and the European Union on behalf of Europe’s 3.5 million Jews, often on Middle East-related issues and the need to combat anti-Semitism.
While Kantor does not plan for the EJC to abandon these issues, he has displayed a preference for engaging politicians behind the scenes and has dedicated more resources to promoting Jewish cultural and educational causes.
Kantor’s activities and style stand in vivid contrast to those of Besnainou, who devoted his energies to attacking anti-Semitism and pushing E.U. leaders to be harsher on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad .
Kantor, a billionaire philanthropist who has resided in Geneva for 14 years, has promised to expand the 41-country organization’s activities into the field of education and culture, improve fundraising and lessen its financial dependence on the World Jewish Congress.
In the end, it seemed that although EJC members rarely miss a chance to express their solidarity with Israel, they wanted equal focus on their specific European problems.
“It is the job of Israeli ambassadors to speak on behalf of Israel to the European Union,” said Kobi Benatoff of Italy, a past EJC president. “We need to support Israel, but we speak on behalf of European Jewry.”
Kantor’s election was slammed by Leonid Nevzlin, a Russian tycoon who moved to Israel to avoid what he describes as politically motivated criminal charges aimed at punishing him for opposing Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“It is regretful that Mr. Kantor was elected as the president of the EJC since there are substantial doubts as to his true intentions in this position,” Nevzlin said in a statement.
The statement went on to say that an EJC president with strong ties and a bias to the Kremlin, which increasingly has regressed to authoritarianism and shows a lack of respect to European democratic values, “is unlikely to contribute to the development of European Jewry and its ties with Israel.”
Throughout much of the campaign for the EJC presidency, opponents painted Kantor as a Putin loyalist. Besnainou claimed that Kantor’s election would hurt Israel and European Jewry because he would be unwilling to harm his good relationship with the Kremlin. Kantor is among the wealthiest people in Russia with an estimated net worth of $1.7 billion.
One French delegate noted that Kantor was silent when Putin met with Hamas representatives in Moscow after the Islamist party’s election victory last year and condemned Israel for using disproportionate force in last summer’s Lebanon war.
But Kantor told JTA on Tuesday that “cooperation and not confrontation” are the best tools for influencing Kremlin policy.
“Putin came to Krakow for the World Holocaust Forum and apologized for the existence of anti-Semitism in Russia,” he said, referring to an event that was part of Auschwitz liberation ceremonies. “We invited him to be there, and this is the concrete result of our efforts.”
Kantor did not respond publicly to any of the attacks on him in the Israeli press by Besnainou or his supporters. Instead he promoted his funding of massive heritage projects, such as the $6 million Auschwitz commemoration in 2005 attended by 70 heads of state.
In Tuesday’s election, with the voting weighted per country, Kantor received 55 votes to 30 for Besnainou. There were two abstentions.
Some voters praised the image of integration between Eastern and Western Europe.
“We are way ahead of the European Union,” said the president of the Swiss Federation for Jewish Communities, Alfred Donath, who has known Kantor for more than a decade. “Russia might actually join the EU in a decade, but now we Europeans have a Russian leader. And why not?”
“I think Mr. Kantor’s win is a good for European Jewry because he has a fresh vision,” said Adam Dawson, who serves on the executive of the British Board of Jewish Deputies, Britain’s Jewish umbrella organization.
An engineer and scientist who made his fortune with a fertilizer company he bought for little money from the Russian state in the early 1990s, Kantor is short on political lobbying experience. One of his campaign promises was to appoint a vice president who will be responsible for E.U. relations.
What impressed Dawson and other voters, however, was that Kantor also wanted to station an EJC representative in Brussels, where the WJC has its headquarters.
In the end several EJC delegates told JTA they supported Kantor because they liked his financial support for Jewish causes. Last year he put up $10 million for the European Jewish Fund, which helps communities develop Jewish cultural and educational programs.
The spirit of cooperation Kantor espouses is much needed as well within the EJC, according to several members who complained that representatives spend more time fighting about bylaws or Eastern-Western divides than discussing substantive issues.
WJC President Ronald Lauder and the chairman of that organization’s governing board, Matthew Bronfman, both attended the conference where the vote was held. They gave speeches outlining the threats to European Jewry unprecedented levels of anti-Semitism and Iran’s nuclear program, among others.
The latter is an issue on which Kantor has taken action. Notably through the European Jewish Fund, he organized a multimillion-dollar conference of experts in Luxembourg in May. Russians, Israelis and Americans discussed the threat of nuclear proliferation.
Kantor has promised to find new sources of revenue for the organization, so it can also focus on a passion he shares with Lauder: education.
For Kantor, the threat of assimilation is just as serious as the threat of anti-Semitism.
He would like to fund programs that instill Jewish pride and promote Jewish writers, scientists and politicians throughout Europe to Jews and non-Jews.
Several of those who did not support Kantor, including Richard Prasquier, who leads Western Europe’s largest communal body, the CRIF umbrella group in France, said he could still prove to be a positive force.
“If I feel he is too soft about Israel or Iran, I will certainly say so,” Prasquier said. “When I spoke with him, he assured me he would very thoughtful about that, and Iran is very high on his agenda. We have to take him on his word. The worst thing we can do is have a fight.”