Leaders of European Jewish communities found it hard to hide their disbelieving smiles last week at the Kremlin. In a meeting with Vladimir Putin, organized by the European Jewish Congress, the Russian president, who appeared to be well apprised on the situation of anti-Semitism in Europe and the rise in the figures of Jewish emigration from the continent, had an original proposal. “They should come here, to Russia. We are ready to accept them.”
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But the European Jewish Congress President, Moshe Vyacheslav Kantor, was apparently not put off by what he called "a fundamentally new idea,” according to the Kremlin’s transcript of the meeting. “We will certainly discuss it at the congress. I hope we will support you,” Kantor said. To which Putin added “They left the Soviet Union; now they should come back."
Over the course of the past 120 years, millions of Jews have left Russia, under the Czars, the communist dictators and their successors, Boris Yeltsin and now Putin. Last year as well, while much attention was paid to 7,900 Jews leaving France for Israel, 6,000 Jews emigrated from Russia and 7,000 from neighboring Ukraine, which Russia invaded in 2014. Many more Jews seem to be fleeing from Putin than from Western Europe, but the Russian president seems to think that his country should be a desirable destination for Jews fearful of anti-Semitism and Islamist terror. And so, apparently, does the man who is the elected head of the organization that purports to represent European Jews.
This week, as representatives of Jewish communities in Europe gathered in Brussels for a special session to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, they had another item on their agenda – the presidential elections of the European Jewish Congress (EJC), the representative body which, at least in theory, coordinates between Jewish communities and address their joint concerns. Over the last eight years, for better or worse, the EJC’s activities have reflected more than anything else the man standing at its helm.
There were no surprises in Tuesday's election, as there was only one candidate running: Kantor was handily elected to a third term. Kantor’s reelection in a period which combines both new challenges and security concerns for European Jews, a wave of xenophobia and radicalism sweeping over the continent and renewed tension between Russia and the West, has increased disquiet at the presence of an oligarch known for his ties to the Putin regime at the head of the EJC as well as raising questions over the very relevancy of the organization today.
Unknown outside Russian business circles before he was first elected EJC president in 2007, the 62-year-old Vyacheslav Kantor, as he is still referred to in the Russia media, was one of the wave of Russian businessmen who made their fortunes in the first years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union by snapping up state-owned monopolies at bargain prices and building business empires overnight. But, while other oligarchs made a name for themselves in high-profile sectors such as oil, banking and media ownership, and with their accompanying flamboyant lifestyle, Kantor, who cornered the less glamorous, but highly lucrative fertilizer market, kept out of the limelight. Unlike his peers, who snapped up soccer teams and newspapers and bragged about who has the biggest yacht, Kantor’s tastes run to the more genteel pursuits of amassing a huge collection of avant-garde art. Married with five children, he was part of a group of oligarchs who made their peace with the new dictator of the Kremlin when the ambitious and then young President Putin turned on those billionaires who had strayed into politics, jailing their leader Mikhail Khodorkovsky and forcing others into exile. Russian-Jewish oligarchs tend to be aligned either with the anti-Putin “Yukos group,” all of whom are now in exile, or with the “Alpha Group,” with which Kantor is identified, which continues to maintain its businesses in Russia and is careful not to cross Putin.
There are different theories over how and why Kantor, who declined to be interviewed for this article, discovered his Jewish roots and began calling himself Moshe. “A job like this is a fantastic insurance policy,” says one senior executive in a major Jewish organization. “Who is going to prosecute the president of the European Jewish Congress and risk being accused of anti-Semitism?” Others take a more charitable view of his motives. “I can’t tell you exactly what made him come back to his roots, but he has been taking an active interest in Jewish affairs for 15 years and even keeps a kosher kitchen in his home,” says one European communal leader.
In the eight and a half years of Kantor’s presidency, the EJC has certainly done a lot, some would say too much, to highlight anti-Semitism in countries to which Putin’s administration is hostile, including in Western Europe and neighboring Ukraine, while at the same time praising the Kremlin for acting against anti-Semitism in Russia. This is despite official Kremlin propaganda outlets like the Russia Today news channel regularly featuring on its broadcasts Holocaust deniers and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists. Kantor is a staunch defender of Israel in all forums, but he is not known for calling out the relentlessly anti-Israel tones on these Russian government-sponsored channels.
“Kantor didn’t need to bring the Jewish delegation to Moscow last week to boost his electoral prospects," commented a veteran Russian-Jewish leader. “He is the sole candidate anyway. He did it for Putin, who is anxious to show the Russian public and the world that there are still Europeans who are willing to come to him in the Kremlin and that the Jews respect him."
Three months ago, at the end of a routine EJC executive committee meeting, executive vice president Raya Kalenova announced that since the EJC’s General Assembly members would be meeting on January 26-27 in Brussels to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day and to take part in an international conference on anti-Semitism, they would also hold the presidential election then. This was the first official notification of an election, which, according to the EJC’s bylaws, did not have to take place until November 2016. Bringing forward the election meant that no other candidate had time to begin campaigning and lobbying the different communities and Kantor was reelected unopposed.
The EJC is an affiliate of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) but there is an uneasy relationship between the two congresses. At WJC headquarters in New York there is concern that Kantor brought the election forward to give him time to mount another campaign, this time to unseat WJC President Ronald Lauder in the election expected to take place in April 2017. Traditionally, the WJC president has come from the largest and most influential Jewish community, the United States. In the same way that Kantor successfully challenged the French leaders who had presided over the EJC since its foundation in 1986, there are fears now he is planning to do the same next year against the Americans at the WJC. Kantor did not respond to this suggestion.
The tension between the two congresses, which nominally cooperate, was evident exactly a year ago, when the WJC, together with the Polish government, organized a massive commemoration event at Auschwitz, on the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation by the Red Army. The service, in which hundreds of survivors took part, along with heads of state and senior politicians from dozens of countries around the world, was notable for two absences. The Russian government was not represented, following a high-level diplomatic spat over remarks by Polish leaders about which nation’s soldiers deserved the credit for liberating Auschwitz: Russia's or Ukraine's. The European Jewish Congress, despite one of the largest Holocaust commemoration events in history taking place in its backyard, also stayed away. Instead, Kantor organized his own ceremony at the site of the Theresienstadt concentration camp in the Czech Republic, which, despite his best efforts, attracted scant international media attention. Some Jewish leaders saw this as proof of his inability to cooperate and share the limelight with the World Jewish Congress. Others interpreted it as Kantor acting according to the Kremlin’s wishes and interests. Either way, the separate commemorations left a bitter feeling.
Events like this have raised the question of whether the EJC, an organization founded to represent the joint interests of Europe’s Jewish communities towards governments and international organizations such as the European Union (which is why its main office is in Brussels) is fulfilling its original purpose under Kantor’s presidency. Unsurprisingly, the most vocal criticism can be heard from the leaders of the largest community in Europe, French Jewry.
“I don’t hear or see anything from the EJC” says Gil Taieb, a vice president of CRIF, the French Jewish representative committee. “Our community has no connection with them. They say they are active but not here. It’s a pity because in times like this, with the anti-Semitism, there should be some joint strategy on how to help communities in places like Marseille and the suburbs of Paris. But there’s nothing. No-one wants to run for the presidency because there’s a feeling it just isn’t a relevant organization. Ninety percent of Jews in France don’t know who Kantor is, and I’m being charitable.”
Pierre Besnainou, the previous president of EJC who lost in 2007 to Kantor, believes that the Congress has lost its way.
“The communities should be strong and work with their own governments on issues of security and education. My vision was for the EJC to represent the Jews and be a bridge between Israel the European Union and the Arab states. That isn’t Kantor’s vision and you have to ask whether the Congress is still relevant.”
Richard Prasquier, a former president of CRIF who ran against Kantor in 2012 and lost, says that “the issues we are facing now as European Jews are similar and significant and at this time we should have a joint European strategy and joint action. But few know there is a European Jewish Congress at all and it has no influence on the Jews’ thinking.”
Their criticism no doubt is motivated, at least in part, by the fact that Kantor ended the French dominance of the EJC. Another former CRIF vice president and today member of the French parliament, Meir Habib, is a supporter of Kantor whom he calls “a Zionist with values who does a lot of good work.” He ascribes the criticism to “a clash of egos.” But it doesn’t come only from France. Philippe Markiewicz, president of the Belgian Consistoire, is still angry at how Kantor behaved in May 2014, after the attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, in which an Islamic State terrorist killed four.
“In a meeting with (Belgian) Prime Minister Charles Michel, Kantor said that Belgium has the second highest level of anti-Semitism in Europe,” recalls Markiewicz. “That’s simply not true. We are facing terror here, especially in France, Belgium, Britain and Germany and we have to secure our communities, but the responses of the heads of our governments have been very good and the Belgian government with which we have a fantastic relationship has added 4 million Euros for our security. So when I hear things like that from Kantor and what was said last week in the meeting with Putin, I have a problem. If that’s what’s being said, we don’t need the EJC. I also think that it’s a big problem that the president of an organization which represents mainly Jews living in the European Union is not himself a citizen of the EU.”
Other Jewish communal leaders have mixed views of Kantor and the EJC. Andras Heisler, president of the federation of Jewish communities of Hungary, says that, "We have a good relationship with EJC and they have helped us on security issues, but it needs to be a stronger organization.”
For some, the EJC under Kantor has been too strong, especially when they claim it has demanded that communities do not affiliate themselves with other international Jewish organizations like the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress and the European Jewish Parliament, which are headed by rivals of Kantor. Jasha Alafandri, president of the tiny Jewish community in Montenegro says "we are not members of the EJC because they demand exclusivity. I think that these organizations should exist to help the communities and not that we should exist to serve them. We received financial and organizational assistance from the Euro-Asian Jewish congress without any conditions. But EJC have conditions. And you can’t talk to Kantor himself, of course. He’s much too important.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, one of the communities that most staunchly supports Kantor is Great Britain. Kantor, a Russian and Israeli citizen (like many Jewish oligarchs, he has an Israeli passport and a house in Herzliya), he has spent over a decade living in Geneva and today lives primarily in London’s affluent Hampstead Garden Suburb. He has become active in supporting local Jewish organizations, such as Mitzvah Day and the Community Security Trust (CST) through the European Jewish Fund, a philanthropic organization he founded. The British delegation, not the Russian, proposed Kantor’s candidacy for the EJC presidency.
“Kantor has shown himself as a strong leader, focused on fighting anti-Semitism” says Jonathan Arkush, president of the British Board of Deputies. “You need someone with the time, the commitment and the resources to do a job like this and it doesn’t necessarily matter which country he comes from. I think that in the same way Ronald Lauder revitalized the WJC, Kantor has done the same to the EJC.”
Arkush raises an important point. Since Edgar Bronfman became WJC president 35 years ago, it has become standard practice that the presidents of major international Jewish organizations have been extremely rich men. They have the time and the private jet and the prestige to travel the world meeting with heads of state. They have the money to bankroll the organizations they head and to fund their private foundations, which make donations to Jewish communities and local organizations in need, like Kantor’s EJF. These donations establish their standing as major Jewish philanthropists and secure them the necessary votes for reelection. But for these businessmen, it is difficult to see where the philanthropy ends and private interests begin. Kantor, whose net worth is assessed by Forbes magazine at $2.7 billion, controls Acron Group, one of the largest global suppliers of mineral fertilizers, produced mainly in Russia, but marketed across the world. In June 2015, Kantor appointed former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as chairman of the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation (ECTR), an organization he founded and funds. To mark the appointment, Kantor and Blair published a joint article in the Times of London on the dangers of anti-Semitism in today’s Europe. Six months since that article, there has been no public record of any activity by Blair on behalf of ECTR, not even on the organization’s website. Since leaving Downing Street in 2007, Blair has pursued a lucrative career as a consultant and lobbyist to governments and corporations. “Like any other oligarch dependent on global trade with Russia, Kantor has to be worried about possible trade sanctions that could cause him massive damage.” says a senior executive of a Jewish organization with extensive experience of working in Russia. “Someone like Blair with his contacts in Western governments could be very useful to Kantor in planning and trying to block sanctions which could affect him.” In response to a Haaretz query, Blair's office denied his work with Kantor has any connection to his business interests, refused to disclose the sum being paid to him for being chairman and said the fee was donated to the former prime minister's Faith Foundation.
Blair’s predecessor as ECTR chairman was former Polish president Aleksander Kwaniewski. During his chairmanship, Kantor’s Acron Group launched a number of takeover bids for Polish fertilizer producers, despite the opposition of the Polish government to relinquishing control of what it saw as a “strategic industry.” In a strongly worded letter, Kantor’s lawyers denied Blair or Kwaniewski acted as lobbyists on their client's behalf. But whatever the circumstances of their connection to Kantor, the potential conflict of interest between his business activities and presidency of the European Jewish Congress should not be above scrutiny. The position “is a very powerful tool of networking” says former EJC president Besnainou. “Particularly where non-Jews are concerned. Jews don’t know or care who the EJC president is but it’s a brand-name for the goyim. It could be used for personal gain."
Kantor did not specifically respond to a list of questions posed by Haaretz on the issues raised in this article. The European Jewish Congress said in statement that: "This entire article with its false allegations is aimed at one thing – to tarnish the name and reputation of Dr. Kantor by merely recycling all types of allegations, slander and disinformation collected over the years, recited by supposed figures which are hidden using the cover of anonymity. This is all part of a long-standing negative campaign against Dr. Kantor.
"Dr. Kantor had led the European Jewish Congress during a time of unprecedented achievements and the consensus among Jewish communities is that the position of the EJC today is incomparable to the time before he joined the organization nine years ago. There is no doubt that the strength of today's EJC and of the support that Dr. Kantor has received across Europe is discomforting for competing Jewish organizations and their leaders, but the EJC remains focused on facing the many difficult challenges facing European Jewish communities and not engaging in a petty war of absurd and groundless slander repeated in this article."
Kantor has by all accounts become more adept throughout his presidency at projecting a statesmanlike image. Early in his first term, he shocked the participants of a meeting between Jewish leaders and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, focused on the Iranian nuclear threat, when he presented her with a bar of soap he claimed was the same as the one the Germans would hand their Jewish victims before going into the gas chambers in the Holocaust. He explained “it’s a symbol of the need for continued vigilance against anti-Semitism.” He has also toned down some of the more outlandish ideas he used to propose, such as giving all Jews around the world the right to vote in Israeli elections and founding a “Jewish House of Lords,” whose members he would appoint.
“He’s become a lot better at avoiding gaffes than in the past and has recruited a professional team around him,” says one Jewish activist working in Eastern Europe. “He doesn’t make those typical oligarch mistakes anymore.”
He has also established himself as a player in the discreet but intensive relations between Jerusalem and Moscow.
“Netanyahu meets a lot of Jewish leaders who want photo-ops with him” says one Israeli official. “These are usually very brief meetings, but he spends more time than usual with Kantor and has a high opinion of his assessments on the Kremlin’s thinking.”
Another sign of Kantor’s closeness to the Kremlin can be seen in the meeting last month in Moscow of the International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe, another grandly named body founded and funded by Kantor, which has brought together experts from the West, Russia and Israel (including Netanyahu’s former strategic advisor, Uzi Arad). In the past, the Luxembourg Forum focused mainly on the Iranian nuclear program, but this time Iran was not even mentioned in the forum’s declaration. Instead, it urged the leaders of the United States and Russia to work together on nuclear security and the reduction of weapons of mass destruction, without mentioning any specific nation. Other than holding a couple of events a year, subsidizing a few former politicians and senior officials and providing a platform for the man who purports to represent the Jews of Europe, the achievements of the Luxembourg Forum remain unclear, as do those of other organizations established under Kantor’s presidency.