french jews rally 298.
(photo credit: AP)
The grandstanding and accusations that have marked the European Jewish Congress elections could lead to losing sight of the importance of the election for European Jewry and Israel.
In recent years, under incumbent Pierre Besnainou, the EJC has developed strong connections with European Union officials and institutions, leading to a rise in the organization's prestige and importance.
"Other than in France and Germany, no Jewish community in Europe had political strength," one Israeli knowledgeable in European Jewish affairs told The Jerusalem Post. "Suddenly, we have a political federation that nominally represents all European Jewry. Besnainou could meet with [EU Foreign Policy chief Javier] Solana when he wished; he dealt with the issue of Iran and was recognized as the voice of European Jewry in the EU."
Under Besnainou, the EJC turned its eyes westward, serving primarily as a bridge between Western European Jewish communities and the governing institutions of Europe. And, according to both Besnainou supporters and Israeli officials, the EJC's connections with the EU are a boon for Israel, since the organization has advocated a pro-Israel line in the continent's most important political institutions.
Opposing candidate Russian-Israeli billionaire Viatcheslav Kantor is a very different player. His close ties to the Kremlin - a more or less mandatory association for a successful Jewish businessman operating in Russia - are viewed with suspicion by some. According to Besnainou supporters, this new orientation would mean that the EJC - and thus also Israel - would lose the organization's influence in the EU.
But, Kantor supporters counter, the close ties the billionaire industrialist and Israeli citizen has with the Kremlin could themselves be immensely valuable to Israel, especially if the major strategic challenge in the coming years is Iran and not the struggle with the Palestinians.
"The countries we most need today are in Asia, not in Europe," said a Kantor representative in Israel. "Kantor has great relations with Putin, and also with the Luxemburgish and Swiss governments. He has great connections, and he's not embarrassed about it. We have enough Bronfmans and Lauders who are close to the US government or to South American governments. It's not so bad that there's a leader who finally connects us to Putin."
Besides, as a former American Jewish leader told the Post last week, "Kantor's candidacy should not be surprising. Jews in the Former Soviet Union make up a huge part of European Jewry, and it's legitimate that they have a strong voice in institutional leadership."
This election is not just about the two candidates. Both are accomplished and have proven records of supporting Jewish causes and Israel. But each would take the organization in a very different direction.
If it were being held in North America, this election might be a race in one organization out of a plethora of others. But Europe has just one significant umbrella organization, making the decision facing European Jewry on the 26th of June a dramatic one for determining the direction of their political future.