At first glance, it’s an odd choice.
Last month, Julius Meinl, a prominent businessman, was elected as the new president of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, a regional constituent group of the World Jewish Congress. The EAJC’s member states include Russia, Ukraine and many other members of the former Soviet Union, along with India, Myanmar, Singapore and New Zealand, among others. But Meinl, who holds dual Austrian and British citizenship, is none of the above.
At second glance, it’s an even odder choice.
Meinl is the scion of the Viennese coffee roasting and supermarket emporium founded by his great-great-grandfather, Julius Meinl I, a non-Jew, in 1862. He has never before had a leadership role in any Jewish organization, and he is not a registered member of the Jewish community of Vienna, his home city. Plus, his mother was baptized.
What’s more, Austrian authorities are currently investigating allegations of bank fraud against Meinl Bank, where Meinl is chairman of the board.
Despite this, EAJC executives and others hailed Meinl’s ascension to leadership of the organization. “Julius Meinl[’s] name is recognized by generations around the globe,” Motya Chlenov, the deputy executive director of the Russian Jewish Congress, wrote to the Forward in an email. “[The] history of this family may well serve as the role model for the first generation of Russian Jewish philanthropists.”
A spokesman for Meinl himself said the scion was not available for an interview. The spokesman, Thomas Huemer, instead sent his curriculum vitae and the acceptance speech Meinl gave at the EAJC’s General Assembly in Jerusalem on February 17. In this address, Meinl said that he saw representing the EAJC as “the beginning of the next step of my involvement with the Jewish world.” So far, this involvement has included donations to a small synagogue in Vienna and to the Yitzhak Rabin Center, in Israel. In autumn 2013, Meinl signed a joint venture with the EAJC for a fund to support the needs of Jewish communities under its purview. More details are not available, according to Huemer.
The nature of the alleged fraud involving Meinl’s bank is complicated. But the investigation remains active, and Meinl’s suspected role in it appears to be significant.
Meinl became the head of Meinl Bank, the family banking arm, in 1983, when he was 24 years old. Later, with real estate assets from the family and its retail property portfolio, he started Meinl European Land. He then took the company public in 2002, with shares sold on the Vienna Stock Exchange. His bank served as a formal management advisor to MEL.
Though Meinl had no formal position at MEL after it went public, the relationship between his bank and MEL remained very close: In 2006, revenues from MEL made up 60% of the bank’s earnings. Austrian authorities are investigating allegations that during the worldwide recession that began in 2007, MEL secretly sold shares of itself to a company controlled by Meinl’s family and later bought it back, all to the profit of the Meinl family, but at a loss to MEL’s shareholders.
Meinl adamantly denies any role in the transactions under investigation. But in April 2009, he was arrested as a flight risk and released after two days on bail of $137.5 million.