"This was a hostile takeover," a female attendee from Turin, Italy, said at the close of the European Council of Jewish Communities conference in Berlin on Tuesday, the day after the organization made the surprise announcement that Ukrainian billionaire Igor Kolomoisky had been chosen as its new president – without an election or consultation with the organization’s board.
The attendee’s husband, ECJC board member Arturo Tedeschi, echoed her sentiment, saying, “This is how it’s done in Eastern Europe.”
The appointment of Kolomoisky shocked and dismayed a number of attendees, who said they had no inkling that the conference would be anything but a routine meeting of board members. Many also noted that for an organization that has traditionally focused on social issues affecting Jewish communities in Europe, the conference had an unusually strong emphasis on Israel and Iran’s nuclear program, and hosted a number of Israeli ambassadors and politicians, including Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar. They were joined by Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
In a statement penned the day after the conference, Tedeschi wrote: “A new president of the organization was nominated in a procedure which is both nondemocratic and illegal. Furthermore, a deep change in the strategy of the organization was announced without any advice from the board which was intentionally excluded from any information and any decision.”
Tedeschi added that he and others from the Italian branch of the organization had resigned, as did a board member from the Netherlands and Gabrielle Rosenstein of the German branch. Tedeschi said that while the Italian branch members regret tendering their resignation following many years of membership, “we felt that, under these conditions, we could not continue our work in this organization.”
KOLOMOISKY IS ONE of Ukraine’s richest citizens with a net worth estimated at anywhere between $3 billion and $6 billion. He is a controlling shareholder of the Privat-Bank and Ukrnafta, the country’s largest oil and natural gas company.
He has been a major benefactor of the Jewish community of his hometown of Dnepropetrovsk. The city was the childhood home of the late Chabad Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson and will be the future home of the Menora Center, which is being bankrolled by Kolomoisky and several of other Ukrainian Jewish businessmen for an estimated $80 million.
Planners have vowed that the complex will be the world’s largest multifunctional Jewish center, spanning some 42,000 square meters across seven towers formed in the shape of an immense menora, the highest of which will climb 20 stories over the Dnieper River. Plans for the site also include a Holocaust museum and a 76-room hotel.
Following his appointment, Kolomoisky made no formal announcement and left the event, having only given an interview to a film crew flown in from the Ukrainian TV Channel 1 + 1 News, in which he bought a majority interest of in 2006. He was not seen at the conference’s celebratory banquet later Monday night nor at a panel discussion and lunch at the Berlin Jewish Museum the following day.
The sole statement he made was in a press release sent out by the ECJC in which he is quoted as saying, “I am honored to be nominated as the president of the European Council of Jewish Communities and we will work hard to unite all European Jewish communities.” Executive vice president Tomer Orni said that Kolomoisky kept quiet after the appointment because “he didn’t want to speak, he is a man of actions, he believes it is better than to do things than just to say things.”
Kolomoisky, president of the United Jewish Community of Ukraine, will take over an NGO that has operated since 1968, and has traditionally focused mainly on social, cultural and educational programs. While during the Cold War the ECJC invested a great deal of effort in helping the destitute Jewish communities of the Soviet Union, a quick glance at the attendees and speakers at the conference showed that the face of the organization’s leaders has moved eastward, in what Orni said is an acknowledgment of the growing prominence of the emerging countries of Eastern Europe.
“This shows that ECJC isn’t just a club of old Western Europe. We are daring to change the paradigm and have sent a clear message that European Jewry is moving on from the old way of doing things,” Orni said, adding that he believed some of the resentment at the surprise announcement was because it challenged the way people in Western Europe had become accustomed to viewing their relationship with the Jewish communities of the former Soviet Union.
“It’s no longer the nebbish from the East asking for a handout. It’s a real paradigm shift, where now the Jews of the east are often the ones who are coming to help, and its a hard thing for some people to accept,” he said.
The sentiment was echoed by outgoing president Jonathan Joseph of the UK, who spoke of the importance of new sources of funding and leadership and how the changes in the ECJC reflect the fact that “the reality for Jews of Eastern Europe has changed dramatically over the past 20 years.”
Joseph mentioned that donors in the US have been hit hard by the declining global economy and that “business as usual must change. It is time to change the paradigm to reflect a realpolitik, bringing together East, Central and West Europe together to advance our interests.”
THE MOST prominent Eastern European Jews at the conference, other than Kolomoisky, included Ukrainian oligarch and president of the Ukrainian Jewish Congress Vadim Rabinovich and Kazakh mining and minerals magnate President of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress Alexander Machkevich.
On the first night, less than a month after he was reportedly detained by Turkish authorities on a cruise ship where a number of underage prostitutes had been hired as entertainment, Machkevich gave a speech in which he proposed that “to help Jewish life all over the world, we have to find creative, active ways of doing things that our enemies would never think of. It’s not enough to be a good Jew, you have to be able to protect Jews and be a strong Jew.”
Rabinovich, vice president of the ECJC and no stranger to controversy or police investigations himself, addressed the conference at the second night’s banquet held at Berlin’s iconic five-star Hotel Adlon. He gave a meandering speech that called for “a war on anti-Semitism” and proposed hiring an army of lawyers to prosecute offenders. He also suggested taking journalists to bunkers in Ashkelon under bombardment by Kassam rockets “to show them about tolerance.” Rabinovich, who was once accused by Der Spiegel of pursuing arms deals with the Taliban, also hinted that next year’s ECJC conference should be held in Kiev.
Earlier in the day, Rabinovich, who contributed millions to the restoration of the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City, joined a number of rabbis in hosting Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar at the Chabad house in Berlin. Upon his arrival, Sa’ar was introduced as “the incoming prime minister of Israel” in a festive meet and greet session. He later gave a speech in which he spoke of the significance of attending such a conference “of great importance strategically” in the city that was once the capital of Nazi Germany. He also bemoaned the possibility of a regional arms race, adding that “peace is dependent on the balance of power in the region, and if the radical axis led by Iran is strong, then the prospects for peace are weak.”
The emphasis on things Israeli was not lost on Evan Z. Lazar, a prominent European lawyer, who served on the board of the ECJC for six years before deciding he would resign from the organization following the appointment of Kolomoisky.
“The ECJC has always been an organization for Europe about Europe, not
necessarily a Zionist organization. At previous meetings there would
usually be an Israeli or two from the local community, but Israel was
never the central focus,” Lazar said. “The number of Israelis here, from
the chief rabbi to the education minister to the ambassadors, is very
out of the ordinary.”
He said that “the ECJC, like other nonprofits, was really hurt by the
economic crisis,” but that for a new president to be chosen, even one
with pockets as deep as Kolomoisky’s, “there must be an election by the
members – there was no election. None of our board members knew that
there was going to be any sort of shake-up ahead of time, but all of the
Israeli guest speakers seemed to know.”
Regardless of the discord that greeted the appointment of Kolomoisky, Orni was all smiles as the conference came to a close.
“In any change, there will always be someone who is not happy,” Orni
said, adding that the organization “is very excited because with
Kolomoisky on board we will have the financial means for our initiatives
and he will pave the way for more leaders from the East, and the West.”