Brash Ukraine Oligarch Vadim Rabinovich Challenges Europe’s Jewish Leaders
(JTA) — The explosion that ripped through Vadim Rabinovich’s luxury SUV in central Kiev was strong enough to send a shock wave from the parking lot up to his third-floor office in the heart of the Ukrainian capital.
“It was a shock for a day or two,” Rabinovich said, “and then I moved on.”
The 60-year-old media mogul and Jewish philanthropist views the March 4 explosion as an attack on his life. He has accused Andrey Derkach, a businessman and former politician, of being responsible, telling the Ukrainian media that Derkach had tried to bully him into selling JN1, the Kiev-based television station specializing in Jewish news that Rabinovich launched a couple of years ago.
Derkach has denied the accusation and threatened to sue for libel. The police are still investigating.
“Now I have an armored car,” Rabinovich said. “And that’s the only thing that has changed.”
If a brush with death isn’t enough to cow Rabinovich, it’s hard to see what will. Over the years, the feisty oligarch has battled Ukrainian authorities, business rivals and Jewish community leaders, some of whom have expressed resentment about his ongoing efforts to challenge the old guard of European Jewish institutional life.
But the relentless criticism, like the explosion, has not had its intended effect.
“You can’t please everyone,” Rabinovich said. “That’s life.”
In an interview with JTA this month, he was clad in his typical uniform of jeans and sneakers, a get-up he has been known to wear to occasions where everyone else is in business attire. Rabinovich has a limited appreciation for formalities and, as he puts it, “little patience for nonsense.”
In the 1980s, Rabinovich was arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison for black market ventures, but wound up serving only seven years, according to Korrespondent, a Ukrainian weekly. Rabinovich says he was jailed on “trumped-up charges,” but the United States to this day has barred his entry as a result, he confirmed to JTA.
“You will find accusations against me in the U.S. In Israel, some say I am connected to the mafia. In Ukraine, they say I am Mossad agent, if you find this kind of nonsense interesting,” Rabinovich said. “I don’t.”
Following his release in 1991, Rabinovich began to amass a fortune as a metals dealer operating in the economic free-for-all after the collapse of the Soviet Union. By 1995, he began pouring millions into Jewish causes.
“After I turned 40, I made a discovery that there is such a thing called Torah,” he said. “It led me in all kinds of new directions.”
Rabinovich says he puts on tefillin and prays every morning. He also hosts friends at his house every Friday, where he leads a discussion on the weekly Torah portion.
In 1997 he founded the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, which has an annual budget of $3 million, and still serves as its president. He has sponsored Limmud Jewish learning conferences, provided security services to Jewish schools in Ukraine and started JN1, the world’s first 24-hour Jewish news network.
In 2010, Rabinovich and Igor Kolomoisky, a friend and business partner, tried to take over the helm of a long-running Jewish organization, the European Council of Jewish Communities, but were stymied when board members staged a walkout after Kolomoisky was appointed president outside traditional nominating procedures. Detractors said Rabinovich played a key role in what they described as a “hostile takeover” of the organization.
So Rabinovich started his own organization the following year, calling it the European Jewish Parliament and setting up offices in Kiev and Brussels and a board of 120 members. Critics laughed it off as a farce, noting that the group’s initial nominees included celebrities such as soccer star David Beckham, filmmaker Roman Polanski and actor Sacha Baron Cohen – who didn’t even know they were candidates.
“Clearly, the principle of representation is lacking from this organization – which, like other groups, is no more than a vehicle for the ego of its creator,” Edwin Shuker, the London-based vice president of the European Jewish Congress, told JTA.
But Rabinovich, whose organization has lobbied European governments on Jewish issues, is unfazed by such criticism. In fact, he doles it out just as readily.
Rabinovich on Moshe Kantor, the European Jewish Congress president: He “just sits behind a desk and does nothing and will do everything the Kremlin tells him.”
On Yaakov Dov Bleich, the U.S.-born chief rabbi of Ukraine: “Speaks no Russian and comes to Ukraine twice a year.”
And of American Jewish organizational leaders, Rabinovich says they “only want to be interviewed on television.”
Bleich told JTA he spends most of his time in Ukraine. A spokesperson for Kantor’s European Jewish Congress told JTA that Rabinovich’s statements are “unfounded and spurious allegations unworthy of comment.”
“This is a desperate attempt by Rabinovich to remain on the agenda one last time before his organization ceases to exist in the same way as many other fleeting organizations which come and go, causing confusion and embarrassment to the Jewish community and its relationship with European leaders,” the spokesperson said.
Joel Rubinfeld, a former leader of Belgian Jewry and current co-chair of the European Jewish Parliament, counts some successes of Rabinovich’s organization, notably securing the construction of Montenegro’s first modern synagogue and co-organizing the first European Jewish choir festival in Vienna.
Rubinfeld says Rabinovich’s contributions, his prickly style notwithstanding, are deeply appreciated by Jewish communities, particularly in locales with limited resources that had suffered for decades under communist rule.
“Vadim is both a builder and a bulldozer,” Rubinfeld said, “and as such I think he sees life in a rather geometric manner. He always takes the shortest distance between two points. Some cherish him for it, others resent him.”