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After his speech at the EAJC’s assembly, Meinl received a standing ovation that lasted almost 10 minutes, according to Dov Weissglas, an Israeli attorney who was present.
Weissglas, who was chief of staff to Ariel Sharon during Sharon’s tenure as Israel’s prime minister, told the Forward that he has witnessed Meinl’s surging interest in Judaism for the past “four to five years.” He got to know Meinl, Weissglas related, when he advised the businessman on an issue of Israeli law. Meinl, he said, kept asking questions about Israel. “He is re-exploring his roots,” Weissglas said. “I think this choice [as president] is almost natural.” Weissglas now sits on the board of directors of one of Meinl’s companies.
Meinl may not be a resident or citizen of any the countries in the EAJC’s orbit, but he does have substantial business interests in some of them. The family company has had supermarkets in several Eastern European countries before and after the Cold War. Meinl has also expanded his bank into this region. The bank has recently opened offices in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. Meinl also serves as chairman of Fulcrum Properties, an investment firm now building a shopping center in the Russian town of Ufa. Fulcrum is the firm to whose board Meinl appointed Weissglas.
Meinl’s new position with the EAJC now gives him a prominent public advocacy role in these countries, as well.
If Meinl manages to leave the controversial parts of his past behind, the EAJC is likely to benefit from his surging interest in his Jewish background, and not just because of financial contributions from Meinl to its activities.
“In today’s Russia, a businessman who is a citizen of Russia would not say anything that is critical of the Putin regime without jeopardizing the organization,” said David Fishman, a professor of Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in New York, who specializes in Eastern European Jewry. Meinl is likely to be less vulnerable because he is not a resident, which makes it more difficult to arrest him, he said. Meinl’s business interests are also less likely to be damaged by the Russian government, since he has a considerable part of them in other regions, said Fishman, who called his selection by the EAJC “a shrewd and clever move.”
Meinl is not the first EAJC president to be linked to a possible scandal. Alexander Mashkevich, the group’s founder and first president, is an Israeli-Kazakh billionaire who was connected to what became known as the Turkish sex yacht scandal in October 2010, when Turkish authorities broke up an alleged prostitution ring on a boat that Mashkevich was on. Though initial reports said he was arrested, Mashkevich later denied this. He resigned from his post in June 2011 in order to focus on his business, according to media reports.
Vadim Shulman, a businessman with Ukrainian, Russian and Israeli citizenship, succeeded Mashkevich as interim president and was formally elected in June 2012. Shulman is the sponsor of a documentary series, “The Third World War Has Begun,” about the threat of terrorism. At the end of last year he announced his resignation, because he couldn’t fulfill the necessary duties for the job, according to the EAJC’s press release.
While Meinl might seem an odd choice to head a Jewish organization in the eyes of an American or Western European reader, Fishman said that the situation is different in the EAJC’s member states. Due to high rates of intermarriage in former Soviet states, “there is a much looser definition of Jewishness,” he said. “It’s truly a choice to adopt Jewish identity.”
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