Russian Mogul Eyes ‘House of Lords’

By Marc Perelman

Published May 26, 2006, issue of May 26, 2006.
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Like many top-tier philanthropists, Moshe Kantor was tired of listening to staffers at charitable organizations tell him how to spend his considerable wealth. So the Russian business tycoon came up with a solution: the creation of a “House of Jewish Lords” that would serve as a place for well-to-do donors to throw their philanthropic money around as they see fit.

Kantor, 52, is the owner of Akron, one of Russia’s largest fertilizer companies. He recently launched his new philanthropic club, called the European Jewish Fund, with the goal of recruiting at least 50 ultra-rich European Jewish donors to pay a minimum entry fee of $1 million for a lifetime membership that eventually might be transferable to their heirs. The plan is for the new body to vet project proposals made by a “chamber of professionals.”

Kantor, who splits time between his native Moscow and Geneva, says that his “House of Jewish Lords” has received an endorsement from Israeli President Moshe Katzav, as well as from Jewish communal organizations in a dozen Eastern and Southern European countries.

“There is a big contradiction between philanthropists and Jewish public life, and this is not favorable to Jewish goals,” he said during a recent Forward editorial briefing.

The new body is one of several relatively recent endeavors that have transformed Kantor into an influential Jewish communal leader with an international reach. He is president of the Russian Jewish Congress and chairman of the board of governors of the European Jewish Congress.

He paid personally for the high-profile commemoration in Krakow in January 2005, which marked the 60th anniversary liberation of the Auschwitz extermination camp. The event brought together about 40 heads of state and governments. It was formally held under the aegis of the European Jewish Congress and the World Holocaust Forum, an entity that Kantor founded for the occasion. The forum is also funding a continentwide Holocaust education project for schools.

Kantor, who lost most of his family during World War II, is now working with Ukrainian authorities to hold a similar ceremony in late September to mark the 65th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre. It has been said that about 100,000 Jews, Gypsies and other civilians were murdered in September 1941 at Babi Yar, a field near the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, by Nazi troops and local collaborators. Kantor discussed the project earlier this month with Ukrainian President Viktor Youshchenko. Invitations to several heads of state have been sent out already.

Kantor argued that such events could produce concrete results, pointing to the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Israel just a few months after attending the Auschwitz commemoration.

In addition to the event in Ukraine, Kantor is seeking to organize a summit of Russian and American philanthropists in Moscow under the aegis of the Russian Jewish Congress and of United Jewish Communities, the roof body of Jewish charitable federations in North America.

He emphatically denied that any of his recent moves had anything to do with his public spat earlier this year with the president of the European Jewish Congress, Pierre Besnainou of France, over control of that organization’s funds. During the annual general assembly in Prague, Besnainou accused Kantor — the largest donor to the European Jewish Congress — of blackmail because of his demand that bylaws be adopted granting him control over the disbursement of his donations. At the time, Kantor told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he was entitled to know where the money was going, but he told the Forward that the dispute was about process.

Kantor said that he still hopes a compromise can be reached, but he is clearly upset at his Western counterparts — especially the French — for what he sees as their patronizing ways and suspicion toward rags-to-riches Russians such as himself.

“This is a new time for Jewish life in Europe,” Kantor said. “We don’t want to be patronized by other Jewish communities.”

Besnainou could not be reached for comment.

Serge Cwajgenbaum, the EJC’s secretary-general, dismissed the dispute as minor but acknowledged that there was a personality clash.

He said that Kantor was fully entitled to set up a new entity to use his private money. “The EJC represents European Judaism by bringing together national organizations through a democratic mechanism,” he said. “You also have structures that are not representative but are sources of power because of their financial clout. But one should not influence the other.”

While they will not acknowledge it publicly, several Jewish communal leaders in Western Europe are disturbed by what they see as Russian businessmen using their extraordinary wealth to gain prominence in Jewish public life. They are also in fear of a potential public-opinion backlash should the fact emerge that some of that money comes from dubious sources.

Since the fall of communism, several prominent Russian Jewish oligarchs have benefited from the confusion and corruption of the mass privatization of Soviet companies to become billionaires. Several have since clashed with the Kremlin, most recently Mikhail Khodorkovsky, oil tycoon and Kantor rival, who is now in jail for tax fraud in what many observers claim is a ploy by Putin and his allies to snuff out political opposition.

In his interview with the Forward, Kantor said that being Jewish had nothing to do with Khodorkovsky’s predicament.

The son of a Red Army officer who earned his doctorate in astrophysics, Kantor made a fortune in the metal industry under Boris Yeltsin and — unlike Khodorkovsky and several other oligarchs — has stayed on good terms with Putin. Kantor praised Putin for his commitment to fighting antisemitism, and he described Russia’s approach to Iran and Hamas as a smart Soviet-era gambit to get close to your enemies in order to better control them.

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