European Jewry splits in two

French, Austrian Jewish communities suspend their membership in the European Jewish Congress.

moshe kantor 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
moshe kantor 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The French Jewish community suspended its membership in the European Jewish Congress on Sunday, shortly after a vote in Paris extending the terms of the umbrella group's leadership by two years. The French were joined by the Austrian and Portuguese communities, who say they may break away from the European Jewish Congress entirely after its General Assembly retroactively extended the term of members of the EJC's executive. Instead of holding elections in June 2009, they will serve until June 2011. "Someone elected for two years should not have his mandate prolonged in this way," Richard Prasquier, president of the Representative Council of French Jewry (CRIF), told The Jerusalem Post. According to Prasquier, the problem isn't the longer terms, but its application to the current executive. "There is no reason that an electoral mandate given for two years be prolonged. The mandate must end, and new elections can bring a new mandate for four years," Prasquier said. The EJC General Assembly's delegates, from more than 40 nations, voted 51-34 to double the term lengths. Though "it was done through a vote," said Prasquier, "an electoral mandate was extended without electoral campaigning, without adversaries. This is not democracy as I see it." The French delegates said the initiative required a two-thirds majority to pass, but a simple majority vote was called, which allowed it to pass. The dispute comes after months of tension going back to the mid-2007 election for EJC president, contested by Russian agrochemical tycoon Moshe Kantor and French businessman Pierre Besnainou. Kantor, who ultimately won the election, was often denigrated as a "Putin stooge" who would be soft on the Kremlin and would represent Russian interests in Europe, rather than Jewish interests in Russia. The current crisis includes similar talk, with one European Jewish official telling the Post that Kantor "is taking over the whole EJC as his own little soccer club or something. At least the French and the Austrians have the balls to stand up and stay away. Most of those folks are afraid in an open and public audience to stand up and say 'no.' That's a shame, but it's also a result of certain elements of Russian mentality. We've seen it on other occasions when there were elections on certain issues." No one has presented evidence or explanations regarding alleged illegitimate pressure by either camp, and Kantor has called the persistent talk about a "Russian mentality" a form of racism. The French, Austrians and Portuguese may be on their own. In addition to losing the vote on the term extension, a new constitution was passed at Sunday's meeting, also evidently against their wishes, by 63-22. According to Britain's Flo Kaufmann, vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the new chairwoman of the EJC Council, Kantor has been anything but a "one-man show." "I think the difference between him and previous presidents is that he's prepared to involve his colleagues and members of his executive in roles in a way that has not previously happened, and I've been on the executive for a number of years," she said. "It's not a one-man band, no way. I didn't quite understand what the beef was with the French." For the French and Austrians, extending the term length was "just the last straw," said Ariel Muzicant, president of the Austrian Jewish community. "We don't feel that this president [Kantor] and his policies represent the European Jewish communities." According to Muzicant, Kantor had mismanaged the EJC approach to the close ties between Russia and Iran. Kantor "met Putin [in October], and two weeks later Putin goes to Iran, but says nothing about the Holocaust, Israel, any of our concerns. Then the EJC is silent!" But Britain's Kaufmann believes Kantor has handled the Russian-Iranian issue as well as he could have. "It's not solved because the problem itself is difficult," she told the Post. What's the next step? Prasquier is examining the options. "I would like to have confirmation of the legal aspect of my position. Afterwards, we'll see. I'm not trying at this point to create a new organization. We have enough organizations; having more only weakens us. But we have to abide by some rules. Democracy has some rules. I want to have the legal possibilities cleared up, and then we'll see."