The annual delegation of the members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations visited Israel last week, and among them the unfamiliar face of Vladimir Yosipov Sloutsker stood out. He is the brand new president of the Russian Jewish Congress, who was invited to join the delegation. His roly-poly figure and his bellowing laughter clearly differentiated him from his restrained American colleagues.
Three months ago Sloutsker was elected president of the Congress, the organization that presumes to represent all the Jewish organizations in Russia, in a way similar to the function of the Conference of Presidents in the United States. Sloutsker is an extraordinarily colorful figure in the landscape of Jewish functionaries. In addition to being a well-connected politician and a successful businessman, he is a researcher and lecturer in kabbala and a grand master in karate.
Sloutsker has taken up his position during a low period in Israeli-Russian relations. Last month Russia decided to sell Syria advanced missiles, and last month it announced that it would provide Iran with fuel for operating the nuclear reactor at Bushehr. Sloutsker attributes this to "certain bodies and centers of power in the country, where thinking from the past prevails to the effect that the Arab countries are part of `our' camp, and Israel and the Zionists are part of the other side's camp."
He explains the anti-Semitism in Russia, which in recent months has reached new heights, as part of a worldwide trend: "Human civilization is in the midst of a process of a change in values, and it is not yet clear what the new values will be. In conditions of instability there is a tendency to blame the instability on the Jews. This can already be seen today in Europe, when Israel is accused of fanning international terror."
Sloutsker's attitude toward Israel has undergone something of a change in recent months. At a press conference that he called upon his election, he did not mention the connection between the Congress and Israel as one of his goals, and also evaded an answer when he was asked about this. In an interview in Jerusalem last week, he was already saying that without the State of Israel there is no meaning to the existence of Diaspora Jewry. During his visit here he was granted a private meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, at which he called upon him to embark on an aggressive public relations campaign to improve the standing of Israel and Jews in the world. He also suggested the establishment in Russia of a body to deal with the conversion of immigrants to Israel and promised to help bring Jewish youngsters to study in Israel. But Sloutsker's enthusiasm ended when Sharon started talking about mass immigration. As far as he is concerned, immigration like that should be left for the end of days.
The Russian Jewish Congress, which was founded in 1996 with huge fanfare, has in recent years reached the brink of clinical death. Its founders, a group of Jewish oligarchs headed by Vladimir Gusinsky, who also served as its first president, tried to shape it on the model of the very prestigious and influential Conference of Presidents. But the promising start was cut short by Vladimir Putin's rise to power. Gusinsky, who was among the oligarchs who did not hesitate to enter into confrontation with the Kremlin, criticized Putin in the media that he owns. The persecution by the authorities forced Gusinsky to flee from Russia in 2000, and the Congress became one of the main casualties of the affair.
Three years later, the same path was followed by the second president of the Congress, Leonid Nevzlin, one of the owners of the Yukos oil company, who was forced to flee to Israel. He was replaced by Yevgeny Stanovsky, who did not enjoy the personal wealth and the status of his predecessors. The budget for the activity of the Congress, which initially had stood at $10 million a year, also plummeted during Stanovsky's day to a few hundred thousand dollars a year.
Now the position is once again in the hands of a Jewish oligarch, though of a different sort than his predecessors, as Sloutsker in fact declares his enthusiasm for Putin and it appears to be his intention to make like easy for the Kremlin. Sloutsker, who brought with him to the position both wealth and connections in the government, donated immediately upon his election a quarter of a million dollars to the scant coffers of the Congress. The extent of his personal wealth is unknown and of his business affairs he is prepared to say only that they are in the banking field. He says that he learned the fine English he speaks during his 20 years of international business management.
Sloutsker's wife Olga is also a successful businesswoman who owns a chain of fashionable fitness clubs. Her husband makes it a point to stay fit: He practices karate four times a week and this year successfully passed all the tests for the fourth dan.
Pride and joy
Sloutsker's pride and joy is his knowledge of kabbala, which he says he discovered at the age of 31 after reading an article in a popular scientific journal. "At first I thought kabbala would enable me to develop supernatural powers," he says. "That didn't happen, but thanks to kabbala I got closer to Judaism and I became a believer." The huge popularity of kabbala in the Western world has also come to Moscow. There Sloutsker operates a center for kabbala study that, according to him, enjoys unprecedented demand. He himself teaches a group of about 30 students, most of them non-Jews, some of whom are in advanced stages of conversion proceedings, he says.
The Sloutskers are at the very heart of the business and political elite of Moscow. Their circle of acquaintances includes many Jews, businesspeople and senior members of the government. Sloutsker's favorite arena for meetings is the Congressman, the business club of the Russian Jewish Congress. "People of my generation have taken all the `right' positions in business and politics," says Sloutsker, "and I have many friends." One of his friends, the governor of a district in the Volga area, appointed Sloutsker as a representative of the district in the upper house of the Russian parliament. The upper house does not play an important role in Russian politics, but membership in it is considered a status symbol for businesspeople with connections. According to reports, the match between Sloutsker and the Russian Jewish Congress was made by Vladimir Rissen, the Jewish deputy mayor of Moscow who is considered to be Sloutsker's patron in public life.
In the Jewish organizations in Russia, Sloutsker's election was interpreted as a sign of an expected tightening of the connection between the Congress and the authorities. Evidence of this is the fact that the Kremlin publicly offered its congratulations on the appointment - an unprecedented step. Sloutsker does not try to conceal his admiration for Russia's leader. He speaks emotionally about Putin the youth, who once shared lodgings with a Jewish family. "Putin is the source of my optimism about the Jewish future in Russia," he says.
Sloutsker's loyalty to Putin was put to the test a short while after he took up his position. Last month there was a public storm following the publication of a crude anti-Semitic petition in an extreme nationalist media outlet. The petition, which was inspired by the Beiliss trial and the doctors' plot, was signed by several hundred people, among them members of the media, intellectuals and about 20 members of the Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament. The Jews of Russia, who usually are not paid much attention by the Russian media, were suddenly at the center of public interest. "I was shocked," says Sloutsker. "The people who signed the petition called upon the prosecutor general of Russia to outlaw the Jewish religion - this reminded me of statements by Hitler and Goebbels in the 1930s." Some liberal Jewish commentators assessed that the Kremlin had something to do with it. They noted Putin's silence during the first days after the publication of the petition and argued that the petition indirectly served his aims. Sloutsker came out in public in defense of the president. "This petition was a political act and its clear aim was to embarrass the president, who was supposed to deliver a speech that week at a memorial ceremony for the liberation of the camp at Auschwitz."
In Sloutsker's favor it must be said that Putin eventually apologized in public for the affair and said in his speech at Auschwitz that he felt shame at the manifestations of anti-Semitism in his country.