European Jewry's leadership crisis

Few things are more damaging to an inclusive Jewish umbrella organization than an overly aggressive leadership.

EJC president 224.88 (photo credit: Russian Jewish Congress)
EJC president 224.88
(photo credit: Russian Jewish Congress)
The European Jewish Congress faces a crisis. It isn't merely procedural - the French and Austrians announced on Sunday they had suspended their membership in the EJC - but cultural and personal, as well. Few of the world's Jews are familiar with the EJC, since only about 10 percent of them even live in Europe. Just a fraction of these are active in Jewish life, and only a fraction of them have much awareness of the vicissitudes of Jewish politics. Which begs the question: Why are the maneuverings of self-styled Jewish billionaire "presidents" (be they French, Russian or American) deserving of attention? In the European case, the answer is simple. European governments need specific addresses for Jewish issues, and Jewish organizational heads are seen by their governments as representing the Jewish community. Therefore to ask whom, precisely, EJC President and Russian-Swiss-Israeli billionaire Moshe Kantor represents is to miss the point. Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel and others use him as an address when they wish to hear the Jewish agenda, or to pass a message to the Jewish community. That is his importance and his function. So when the EJC is riven by infighting the likes of which erupted Sunday - as the Congress's General Assembly voted not only to extend the tenures for its president and executive from two years to four, but to apply that extension to the current administration - this damages the EJC's only real asset: its image. And by extension, it discredits the Jewish voice on Iran, anti-Semitism and Holocaust commemoration, the issues which top the European Jewish agenda, harms lobbying for education and welfare funding, and undermines other roles a Jewish leadership with the ear of Europe's governments should play. The French say they are reconsidering their future in the EJC because Kantor "illegally" extended his term by two unelected years, meaning new elections will only be held in June 2011 rather than June 2009. It is almost certain that the vote, taken by the broadest representative body of the EJC and passed 51-34, was legal. But, as French Jewish leader Richard Prasquier noted, though the election "was done through a vote, an election mandate was extended without electoral campaigning, without adversaries. This is not democracy as I see it." The norm in Jewish organizational life, certainly in the English-speaking and French communities, is to begin new term lengths with a new election. Thus the extension was not illegal, but it was abnormal. In this, the personality and influence of current president Kantor certainly had a role. Kantor's rivals are not justified in the constant muttering about his "dictatorial ways" and "Russian mentality." His leadership has not been without complaint or incident, but he leads the most multi-cultural and broad-based Jewish umbrella organization in the world and has done so with the willing participation of most of the member communities. The clear majority he enjoyed at Sunday's General Assembly is an indication of this support. But Kantor, nevertheless, is the pivot of contention, and for a real reason. There is a vast cultural and institutional gap between American, British and French Jewry on one side, and Russian Jewry on the other. In the rare times when western Jewish communities act in concert on an issue, either within themselves or together internationally, they draw not only on a handful of competing billionaires but on hundreds of thousands of activists and small donors who form a large, opinionated community. In Russia, power flows in reverse, not from organized and aware citizenry at the bottom, but from Kremlin recognition or oligarchs' attention and funding at the top, channeled through institutions and rabbis into projects in the field. The way forward for the EJC, and especially Kantor's leadership within it, lies in the awareness of this cultural difference. Humility, Kantor's weakness at every turn, would help him to advance the Jewish cause. Few things are more damaging to an inclusive Jewish umbrella organization than an overly aggressive leadership. Kantor has an image problem. And as we know well in Israel, perception is a key pillar of any successful policy, especially in an organization so utterly dependent on its image.