Kantor: European Jewry has bigger problems than Russian Jewry

MOSCOW (JTA) — Moshe Kantor, the recently re-elected president of the European Jewish Congress, will resign as president of the Russian Jewish Congress because, he says, the problems of European Jewry are more urgent than those of Russian Jewry.

"The lack of progress in intercultural dialogue in Europe is a major concern," Kantor said in a statement explaining his resignation.

Kantor cited growing concerns among European Jews that anti-Semitism is on the rise in the wake of Israel’s recent military operation in the Gaza Strip.

"In the span of four weeks, several Western European countries, including France, Belgium and the U.K., have witnessed an alarming number of anti-Semitic incidents,” he said.

Kantor’s resignation comes amid growing concerns among Russian Jews about the financial crisis in the country’s Jewish organizations. The crisis has not spared the Russian Jewish Congress, which is closely aligned with Russia’s Orthodox Jewish movement.

"Because the problems are much more prevalent today in Europe than in Russia, we understand that he wants to focus on his European interests," RJC spokesman Mikhail Savin told JTA.

Kantor, the president of Russia’s largest fertilizer company, has led the congress since 2005. He used the position as a springboard to the presidency of the European Jewish Congress in June 2007. Last December, the European organization re-elected Kantor to a four-year term.

The Russian congress has focused heavily on Holocaust remembrance activities over the past three years, a goal that dovetailed with Kantor’s work in the European Jewish Congress.

Kantor, who holds Israeli citizenship and splits his time between Israel and Switzerland, said he will stay on at the Russian Jewish Congress for two months while the board seeks a new president. Its choice will reflect the direction of the 13-year-old congress and, to some extent, the aspirations of Orthodox Jewry in Russia.

The congress at times has been at odds with the Russian government and other Jewish umbrella groups in the country.

Two former presidents of the organization fled to Israel after conflicts with the Kremlin in a period that saw the RJC’s political clout wane as the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities gained closer ties to the Kremlin.

The longest-serving president of the Congress, Vladimir Gusinsky, clashed repeatedly with the Kremlin both through his media empire and the actions of the congress, rankling then-President Vladimir Putin. Gusinsky fled to Israel via Spain in 2001.

Another former president, Leonid Nevzlin, was a close confidant and partner of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed CEO of the now-defunct Lukos Oil Co. He fled Russia in the summer of 2003 as pressure on the company increased. Last year he was charged in absentia with murder.

Kantor took over in 2005 at the tail end of the conflict as the Russian congress chose a series of more low-key patrons to lead the group away from its history of political activism.

Unlike his predecessors, Kantor’s strong ties to the Russian power structure remain. On Jan. 27, Putin visited the production facility of Kantor’s Akron fertilizer company to announce the lifting of export tariffs on the industry — a crucial boon to the industry squeezed by the Russian financial crisis.

Putin’s move was portrayed in the Russian media as a gift to the industry to help combat the financial crisis.

"We are aware of our responsibilities as citizens," Kantor told Rossiskaya Gazeta after the ceremony with Putin. "For us this is a heavy burden, not grudgingly accepted."

Pinchas Goldschmidt, the chief Orthodox rabbi in Moscow, who is currently on teaching sabbatical in Boston, said a period of stabilization for the congress marked Kantor’s tenure.

Russia’s chief Orthodox rabbi, Adolph Shayevich, said the connection between his umbrella group, the Congress of Jewish Organizations and Associations in Russia, and the congress waned during Kantor’s tenure.

During his three-year tenure, Kantor consolidated the group’s branches, governance and philanthropic wings while overseeing a $13 million budget. The budget has seen cuts as the financial crisis deepened over the past six months. The congress has ceased publication of its magazine, leading to the departure of its editor, Nikolai Propirny, who served as the executive vice president of the congress.

Opinions differ as to where the RJC will turn for its next leader, though there is agreement that the leader will be a prominent Jewish businessman who lives in Russia. The presidium and board of the congress already include many of the most prominent names.

The pick will determine whether the RJC will ambitiously pursue new fund-raising objectives or continue to restructure and maintain a smaller role, board members said.

"I think it’s going to depend on whom you appoint," Goldschmidt said. "It very much depends on their goals."

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