(JTA) — For more than 20 years, American billionaire and World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder has been a driving force behind the revival of Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe.
He has financed an array of Jewish educational and cultural activities that have helped breathe vibrancy into long-dormant communities sealed off for decades behind the Iron Curtain.
Now, European leaders are charging Lauder with using his fortune in a failed effort to influence two Jewish communal elections — for leadership of the Vienna Jewish community and for the presidency of the European Jewish Congress. The Viennese community has declared Lauder, a former U.S. ambassador to Austria, persona non grata.
A spokesman for Lauder denied that Lauder tried to buy the Vienna election and refused to answer questions concerning the EJC.
“I don’t know if this is a new pattern for Lauder, but I do know he’s done it twice now — once in Vienna and once during the EJC elections,” Ariel Muzicant, a former Vienna community president, told JTA.
Two vice presidents of the World Jewish Congress — Cobi Benatof and Flo Kaufmann — have called on Lauder to step down temporarily from his WJC post until the allegations are investigated. Benatof said if the charges prove to be true, it would constitute a violation of the WJC constitution’s ban on interference in the local politics of individual communities.
It’s not clear what Lauder was hoping to gain by influencing either election, both of which were won by candidates that he allegedly was trying to displace. But theories abound.
Some say Lauder may have been seeking a counterweight to the influence of EJC President Moshe Kantor, a Russian businessman worth an estimated $2.3 billion. Kantor’s assumption of the EJC presidency in 2007 was part of a broader rise in the influence of Russian billionaires within international Jewish organizations, a movement that has generated tensions with longstanding Jewish leaders from the West.
Others speculate that Lauder perceives Kantor as a potential challenger for the WJC presidency. Kantor declined to be interviewed.
Still others say Lauder has his eye on the resources of the Vienna community, which has an annual budget of more than $16 million. But this only raises more questions: Lauder, an heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics fortune, is reported to be worth more than $3 billion and over the years has sunk tens of millions of dollars into his philanthropic ventures in Europe.
One thing is certain: Lauder and his associates are saying little.
In a statement to JTA, Lauder spokesman Gary Lewi called the Vienna charges “despicable and without any basis in truth.” He did not respond to allegations concerning the EJC.
"For some 25 years, Ambassador Lauder has demonstrated through word and deed his support for the Viennese Jewish community," Lewi said. "It was Ambassador Lauder’s intent that the Jewish community of Vienna decide their own path and vote according to individual conscience and their own best interest.”
The row in Austria exploded on Dec. 3 when Oskar Deutsch, president of the Vienna Jewish Community, sent a letter to other European community leaders accusing Lauder of offering $5.8 million to factions of the community’s board if they elected his favored presidential candidate, Martin Engelberg. Deutsch prevailed in the election, nonetheless.
After JTA broke the story of Deutsch’s letter, Muzicant came forth with the accusation that Lauder offered money to EJC delegates in exchange for supporting Dr. Richard Prasquier, a French cardiologist and head of the CRIF Jewish umbrella group, for EJC president in elections held Nov. 7. Several sources told JTA that Lauder had lobbied them on behalf of Prasquier prior to the elections.
Prasquier himself confirmed that Lauder had made commitments to communities concerned that they would suffer financially from their vote.
"What Ronald Lauder did was to try to balance the financial influence of Moshe Kantor with his own," said Prasquier. "It was an effort to level the playing field. During the elections, Lauder pledged to cover the costs necessary for the EJC’s operation, which are being covered by Kantor. Furthermore, to my knowledge Lauder only said that communities that received money from Kantor would not be deprived of any monies if Kantor wasn’t elected.”
A spokesperson for the EJC declined to comment.