A recent meeting between American Jewry’s primary umbrella group for Israel and other foreign affairs, and a controversial new European group has sparked heated exchanges among European and American Jewish leaders.
In the days leading up to the meeting, communal officials on both continents warned the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations against its plans for an official exchange involving the American umbrella group and the European Jewish Union.
Some American Jewish officials are wary, in particular, of the EJU’s leadership, which includes a Ukrainian oligarch with whom American government officials will not meet because of questions regarding his business activities. Meanwhile, the group is viewed by other European communities as seeking to take over their representation of organized European Jewry.
The Presidents Conference, however, did not change its plans and was hosted for part of its visit to Europe by the EJU. Nevertheless, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, denied to the Forward that any such meeting had ever been scheduled. But the Forward has obtained documents that detailed the group’s plans for a visit to Brussels by members of the Presidents Conference in coordination with the EJU. Among other things, the EJU offered to help enlist donors to sponsor events scheduled for the visit and to cover the Presidents Conference’s flight to Tel Aviv from Brussels in an EJU-chartered plane. Indeed, the EJU’s website touts the Presidents Conference’s visit at the top of its home page.
The American umbrella group’s plan to meet with the EJU has put the Presidents Conference — and by extension its 51 constituent organizations — in the middle of the new group’s dispute with European Jewry’s established representatives.
“It’s a mess,” Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, told the Forward. He declined to offer his opinion on the decision by American Jewish groups to meet with the EJU, but he made clear that he was not pleased with the new organization.
“You can’t stop any group from forming, but there must be clarity on who is speaking for the Jewish community,” Lauder said.
The EJU was founded last spring by Igor Kolomoisky and Vadim Rabinovich, two Ukrainian oligarchs who in recent years have invested millions of dollars in Jewish philanthropic activity.
Kolomoisky, 49, heads Ukraine’s PrivatBank and is president of the country’s Jewish community. His wealth is estimated at $3 billion, and his company controls much of Ukraine’s oil production.
Rabinovich, a businessman who started off in furniture sales but later made a fortune in the natural gas business, holds Israeli and Ukrainian citizenships. He ran into trouble with Ukrainian authorities in the 1990s and was expelled from the country after being accused of corruption. He was later allowed to return.
But the U.S. State Department maintains a suspicious attitude toward Rabinovich. For a while, it barred his entry into the United States. American diplomats remain barred from meeting with him.
After assuming leading roles in the Ukrainian-Jewish community, Kolomoisky and Rabinovich became more active in the long-established European Council of Jewish Communities. But Kolomoisky’s failed attempt in 2010 to win leadership of the group led the pair to leave the ECJC in April 2011 and establish the EJU. The two businessmen also partnered in establishing the first international Jewish news TV network, JN1.
Shortly after its founding, the EJU launched an ambitious plan to form a European Jewish Parliament, modeled after Israel’s 120-member Knesset, where members will be nominated and elected via the Internet. The initiative was scorned by critics, who pointed to the inclusion of candidates who were not aware that their names had been suggested. The inclusion of such figures as British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen and soccer star David Beckham on the ballot also drew derision.
Much of the criticism came from existing European Jewish groups that saw the launch of the new organization as an attempt to bypass the community’s institutions.
Upon hearing news of the planned meeting, Jewish groups in the United States and in Europe began to voice their concerns. “I flagged this issue to Malcolm,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee’s director of international Jewish affairs, referring to Hoenlein. Baker said he thought that the EJU was a “questionable organization” and that as a member group of the Presidents Conference he should warn its top executive of what would be “at least a PR embarrassment.” He added that the meeting would send a “wrong message” to Jewish organizations in Europe that routinely cooperate with American Jewish groups.
But Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said, “I have no problem meeting with the European Jewish Union.” Foxman acknowledged that the EJU is considered “controversial” but explained that just as European Jewish leaders can meet with any group in the United States, the Presidents Conference should be able to engage with a variety of organizations in Europe. It would be a mistake, he said, for American Jews to take sides in the internal debate over which organization represents Europe’s Jews.
Despite the controversy surrounding the new body, the Presidents Conference moved forward with arrangements for the meeting, scheduled for February 14 to 16 in Brussels.
A February 2 letter addressed to Hoenlein made clear the concerns of European Jewish organizations. Meyer Habib, vice president of CRIF, the organization representing France’s Jewish community, expressed his dismay over the Presidents Conference’s decision to work with the EJU in organizing its visit to Europe. He referred Hoenlein to a December 2011 memorandum signed by leaders of 19 Jewish organizations across Europe, in which they made clear that the European Jewish Congress is the only body speaking on behalf of the community.
“Working with the EJU,” Habib concluded his letter to Hoenlein, “would offend European communities, and I am sure you would like to avoid that.”
In an email response to the Forward, Hoenlein denied receiving any requests to avoid contact with the EJU. ”None of our members have asked us not to attend or meet with anyone about anything,” he wrote, adding that there was no need for such a request, because the Presidents Conference is not attending events of the European Jewish Parliament.
“We never intended or were scheduled to do so,” he added.
Hoenlein, who is currently traveling in Europe and Israel, along with other Presidents Conference members, did not respond to follow-up questions regarding the communiqué detailing his group’s agenda with the EJU and the eventual meeting that appeared to contradict his assertions.
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman