Kantor vows new approach for EJC

The 53-year-old rocket engineer and billionaire has stepped into Jewish affairs with a frenetic energy.

moshe kantor 298 88 (photo credit: Beit Hanassi)
moshe kantor 298 88
(photo credit: Beit Hanassi)
Viatcheslav Kantor, or Moshe Kantor in Hebrew, speaks a slow, precise English and enjoys drawing biblical and historical analogies to his life. Short-tempered, supremely confident and well-connected, the 53-year-old rocket engineer-turned-agrochemicals billionaire has over the past few years stepped onto the Jewish institutional stage with a frenetic energy. For the past two years, he's been the president of the Russian Jewish Congress, and chaired the Board of Governors of the European Jewish Congress for the past four. He's also the founder and chairman of the European Jewish Fund and a patron of contemporary Russian Jewish artists. And now he's reaching further still. He's a candidate - some say the leading candidate - in Tuesday's election for the European Jewish Congress presidency, seeking to replace French incumbent Pierre Besnainou. For many veteran watchers of the Jewish world, this election has come to represent a battle over the future of European Jewry, a EU-centered EJC dominated by French and British Jewry vs. a pan-European institution that gives voice to the very different cultural and political forces emanating from the Russian and Ukrainian communities. At the late-May conference on nuclear disarmament in Luxembourg, cosponsored at Kantor's initiative by the European Jewish Fund, Kantor spoke to The Jerusalem Post about why he's different from the current leadership of the EJC, and where he wants to take European Jewry. The EJC should concentrate on three fields of activity: fighting assimilation, battling anti-Semitism and supporting what he terms "the national Jewish communities in Europe." This program may be admirable, but how is it any different from what currently exists? "Like with art museums in Europe," Kantor replies, "the main thing is quality. Nothing is new in this world, but I'm speaking about the quality of the work." Kantor criticizes Besnainou's "political lobbying agenda," saying that the Jewish agenda should extend beyond this focus. While Israeli officials have commended Besnainou for opening a new avenue for dialogue between Israel and European Union institutions, Kantor insists that these activities have resulted in "lots of activity and visits, but where is the product? I don't think we should rely on politicians alone, but on ourselves and on Hashem. This is the principal difference between my approach and his." Perhaps the most significant contribution Kantor has made to organized European Jewish life is the establishment of the European Jewish Fund. Currently, about half of the EJC's budget comes from the New York-based World Jewish Congress. This leaves the EJC dependent on the American-controlled WJC. Kantor seeks "not autonomy, but security for the EJC. If it's your own house, you should be its master." The fund, a $20 million Luxembourg-based non-profit whose chief donors - those who gave over $1m. each - are all Russian and Ukrainian save one, American Ronald Stanton, has already begun to finance European Jewish projects, with a particular focus in Eastern Europe. Each major donor - Kantor calls them "European Jewish lords, like in the British House of Lords" - can decide where half the dividends his donation goes, with the other half decided by a committee made up of the representatives of the individual national communities. "Right now the income of the European Jewish Fund is bigger than budget of the Congress; we have complete financial [independence] for European Jewish programming," Kantor says proudly. The greatest concern accompanying Kantor's appointment has been his close ties to the Kremlin. He has advised government officials on economic matters and is said to be close to senior government officials. Would this connection, coupled with his business interests in Russia and what some officials in the Israeli government, Jewish Agency and American Jewish organizations politely call "Russian oligarchic culture," result in undue Kremlin influence infiltrating European Jewish affairs? Kantor is offended at the suggestion. "We should not forget that Russia was and is a member of the EJC, which is wider and more representative than the European Union," he bristles, noting that "over the years when I've opposed him [Besnainou] completely, I never used Tunisia, the country he came from, [to oppose him]. I decided it was beneath the Jewish interest. Why does he use my Russian origin against me?" To further calm these concerns, Kantor promises "not to be a one-man show, but a team effort." To that end, he intends to appoint a vice president "who will be responsible just for European Union issues."