European Jewish Congress head faces tough re-election battle

As dust of Edgar Bronfman's resignation as WJC president settles, its European affiliate is focused on June elections that will shape its future.

pierre besnainou 88 (photo credit: )
pierre besnainou 88
(photo credit: )
As the dust settles following Edgar Bronfman's resignation as president of the World Jewish Congress, its European affiliate is focused on June elections that will shape its future. The future role of current EJC President Pierre Besnainou remains uncertain, though from all accounts his high posts and level of involvement in myriad Jewish organizations will continue apace. In contrast to the United States, where dozens of organizations represent American Jewry, there are only a handful of pan-European Jewish organizations representing some 3 million European Jews. For decades, the European Jewish Congress has been the primary group involved in lobbying European politicians, including heads of state and parliaments on issues such as Israel, Iran and anti-Semitism. The EJC is comprised of the heads of Jewish communities in 43 countries. Those communities often turn to the EJC for support, as European Jewry often depends on the state for basic security and even social care and for funding for synagogue buildings. Besnainou was a key player among several WJC steering committee members in the deal that forced Bronfman, who had led the WJC for nearly 30 years, to step down May 7. The deal also prevented Bronfman's son Matthew from immediately following in his father's footsteps as WJC leader. "Besnainou definitely took the day," said Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, a member of the EJC executive and one of Ukraine's chief rabbis. Like several other WJC steering committee members, Besnainou had been unhappy with Bronfman's decision this spring to fire Israel Singer, the WJC policy council chairman who had been accused of financial wrongdoing. Those accusations led to Singer's removal as WJC executive director several years ago, and new allegations of financial misconduct led to his firing in March. "Besnainou has led a public fight, and he won. It raised his stature," said Bleich, who has frequently sparred with Besnainou over internal EJC issues. Besnainou did not respond to numerous calls seeking comment. A Tunisian-born millionaire in his early 50s, Besnainou made his fortune with an Internet service provider in France, where he has lived for decades. He has close ties to Mendel Kaplan, chairman of the WJC's board of governors and a candidate to succeed Bronfman at the group's June 10 governing board meeting in New York. Another possible candidate is cosmetics mogul Ronald Lauder, president of the Jewish National Fund and a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Besnainou is scheduled to meet with Kaplan on Monday, when Kaplan begins setting up an audit of the WJC Israeli office in Jerusalem, as the WJC's Steering Committee agreed last week. Many observers have said that if Kaplan is voted in, Besnainou will have the inside track to become chairman of WJC's governing board, a position he is believed to covet. But there's a catch. Besnainou, president of the United Social Funds of France, has been EJC president since 2005. He's expected to run for re-election in June against Moshe Kantor, a Russian millionaire who lives in Geneva and heads the Russian Jewish Congress. Kantor, also in his mid-50s, is viewed as a strong challenger for the post, and several EJC sources said it will be a tight race. The timing of the election will be critical to Besnainou, sources told JTA. On May 17, the EJC executive meets to decide whether to hold elections before or after the WJC's elections on June 10. If the EJC elections are held before June 10, as many communities want, Besnainou risks not going to New York as the EJC head. This may have no bearing on his candidacy for the WJC executive post, but it's always advantageous to be head of a constituent organization when entering a WJC election. Kantor, Besnainou's rival, is one of several who say EJC elections should be held before the WJC meeting. "The person at the WJC June 10 meeting should be the person representing the the EJC with a full mandate," he said. In a phone interview with JTA, Kantor laid out his vision of the EJC's future. "We should do European projects which are attractive for all, Jews and non-Jews, projects that do more than just demanding something for us because we were victims in the past," he said. Yet Kantor has a reputation for staging successful events about the past, such as a massive gathering for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and a 2006 commemoration of the massacre of thousands of Jews at Babi Yar in Ukraine. Both events attracted about 70 heads of state. Kantor launched a European Jewish Fund two years ago with a budget that he says is larger than the EJC's, though he declined to provide specifics. He said the fund had created 11 educational and cultural Jewish projects across Europe. Besnainou, meanwhile, has made a strong impression with his commitment to Israeli-European relations. He has continuously held meetings with top Israeli politicians to foster stronger ties between European Jews and Israelis, and has distinguished himself in the fight against anti-Semitism by pushing government leaders in Europe to pay more attention to the issue. "He has proven himself as a leader of international organizations," Bleich said. The most pressing issue for the EJC is funding. Gideon Bolotowski, president of Finland's Jewish community, told JTA, "The EJC has to do some soul searching" in the wake of the WJC crisis that began with the internal feud over Singer's firing. "The EJC hasn't been able to build up a base of its own; it's too dependent on the WJC," Bolotowski said. Most of the EJC's budget, just less than $1 million, comes from the WJC. Kantor is reportedly the EJC's largest private donor. The need for independent funding is even more pressing following a May 9 memo sent to WJC members by the head office, which says regional offices must cut their budgets by 15 percent due to a nearly 33 percent decline in fund raising in the first quarter of 2007. "The WJC is Russia, and we are Europe," Bolotowski complained, referring to a dispute over energy supplies last year. "If they decide to turn off the gas pipes, that's it for us."