From Russia with Spurs

It's hard to know what to eyeball first when entering Moshe Kantor's gated, two-story, sand-colored Herzliya Pituah mansion, which boasts such Masters of the Universe features as double height ceilings, massive rooms, expensively tiled and carpeted floors, walls draped in museum-quality Goeblin tapestries - all overlooking a shimmering, landscaped outdoor pool. Sitting across an imperiously long, white-clothed dining table, Kantor, 54, who is said to have made his fortune in the metal business in the early 1990s by relying on connections with Boris Yeltsin's circle, is looking dapper in a business suit and pale lavender shirt and tie. Allied these days with Kremlin strongman Vladimir Putin, he reportedly owns one of Russia's largest fertilizer businesses. And Kantor, whose first name in Russian is Viatcheslav, is the president of the European Jewish Congress (EJC), a Geneva-based political umbrella organization, established in 1986, which represents 42 European Jewish communities (and 2.2 millions Jews). The son of a Jewish Red Army soldier from Zaporusia in the Ukraine, he grew up in Moscow with his parents and older brother and received a doctorate in technical sciences from Moscow's Aviation University. "No one in his wildest dreams," says Kantor, could have predicted that some day he'd be hobnobbing with the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev, living like Romanov royalty and busying himself with Jewish world affairs. Kantor's principal residence is in Geneva, where his wife, two children and grandchild live, though his brother and his 82-year-old mother, Pesha, live in Israel. But nor can some Western European Jews get accustomed to the meteoric success of certain Russian-speaking Jews, charges Kantor. In past interviews Kantor has said that he doesn't like the word "oligarch," and by labeling wealthy former Soviet Jews as such, name-callers are buying into anti-Semitic stereotypes. "There are many jealous people," he says. Kantor is smarting because in mid-February, the French, Austrian, Portuguese and German delegations suspended their membership after members of the EJC's General Assembly in Paris voted 63 to 22 to ratify Kantor's proposed constitution and by-laws, which extend officers' terms from two to four years. Insiders on the other team say there is talk of creating another European Jewish organization. Kantor, speaking fluent Russian-accented English, says each delegation "has its internal reason" for self-suspending, but, by and large, he attributes the squabbling to Jewish "Russia phobia," stemming from prejudices against Jews from the former Eastern bloc. It's an accusation which has been made before by Kantor. Relations between him and certain European Jewish leaders reached boiling point last June, when the EJC elected Kantor president (he was previously elected chairman of the EJC governing board and president of the Russian Jewish Congress), beating out incumbent French Jewish leader Pierre Besnainou and becoming the organization's first Russian-born leader. The vote, by the organization's General Assembly, was 55 to 30 with two abstentions. Besnainou accuses Kantor of buying his way into the EJC leadership by donating large sums to cover its budget. Though member organizations are expected to pay modest fees, Kantor's two-and-a-half-year-old $15 million "European Jewish Fund," based in Luxembourg but managed from Israel, is understood to provide the lion's share of EJC's $1.3 million budget. Kantor counters that such is the nature of Jewish philanthropy, that wealthy indviduals head influential organizations, citing billionaires Edgar Bronfman and Ron Lauder, past and current presidents of the World Jewish Congress, of which the EJC is an affiliate. Kantor believes that Holocaust education and remembrance are the best means to combat anti-Semitism and notes the existence of some five thousand "hidden Holocaust execution sites" across Europe. The World Holocaust Forum, another Kantor initiative, funded a multimillion dollar international ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 2005, attended by 42 heads of state, and a similar event at Babi Yar marking the 65th anniversary of the Nazi massacre of some 33,000 Jews in the Ukrainian ravine. With Iran going nuclear and Europe home to a largely hostile Muslim population, he says European Jews don't have the luxury to be disunited and he is planning another mega-memorial event around the 70th anniversary in November 2008 of Kristallnacht, the infamous German "night of shattered glass," which signaled stepped-up Nazi brutality toward the Jews. By then, Kantor hopes European governments and organizations will have adopted proposed EJC legislation against intolerance and will support his idea for the creation of a Council of Wisdom and Patience, a non-Jewish body to be chaired by former Polish president Alexander Kwasniewski. But first, he acknowledges, he has to make peace with his fellow Jews, "who should be like brothers and sisters." Kantor has appointed a "reconciliation commission" to patch things up with errant EJC members. But he faces the possibility that the mediation effort will fail and the EJC will split up, with equanimity. As for the accusations of other Jewish leaders, he says he's developed a thick skin to criticism, having grown up in a xenophobic totalitarian state where he learned, he says, that the best defense is a good offense. Quoting a favorite Chinese proverb, he says calmly, "[Even] when riding a tiger, use spurs."