Sunday, 28 December 2008

The invisible arm of the WJC

As the World Jewish Congress is set to meet for its general assembly in January, its European branch is entrenched in an ongoing cold war between its western and eastern delegates.
On December 17, Russian businessman Moshe Kantor was easily re-elected president of the lobby with 55 votes, beating French senior challenger Roger Cukierman who got 28, but the latter, a former leader of the French umbrella association CRIF, told me the battle was far from over.

“I imagine the ongoing war between the East and the West will end with the election of the new president ?” I asked Mr Cukierman hours ahead of the vote.
“Obviously,” he answered ironically “after the election, our differences will fade away – just like in the [French] socialist party!” he said, referring to the spectacular split of the French left wing party after its internal election in November.

The French, Austrian, Portuguese and German communities have been criticising Mr Kantor’s leadership and approach, in some cases even before the billionaire took over the head of the EJC 18 months ago. Some criticise the tycoon’s soft lobbying over the Iranian nuclear issue.
“It seems that it is Mr Putin who convinced Mr Kantor of the relevance of his policies rather than the other way around…” evaluated Cukierman.

Mr. Kantor pleads for a friendly approach – working along with Moscow rather than criticising its cooperation with Tehran…but his opponents argue his stance lacks results.
Others have accused him of focusing on commemorations (Kantor financed the massive 60th anniversary of the “liberation” of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Kristallnacht commemoration in Brussels) rather than on the challenges the Jewish community is facing today.

All four communities left the lobby in 2008 after a contested vote to stretch the president’s mandate from 2 years to 4.
Some of them even considered creating a new pan-European Jewish lobby, perhaps even a partnership with the American Jewish Committee. This absolute nightmare for the EJC was averted by a thread.

“The idea of creating another European body was indeed considered for a time,” confirmed Cukierman, “but we dropped the plan when we realised it wouldn’t be effective because we would be competing with the EJC.”

The four rebellious communities came back to EJC late 2008 after Kantor accepted to hold elections as planned around June 2009. They thought they would challenge his policies from the inside, even compete for the leadership of the lobby.

But once the communities returned to the EJC, the body - which widely relies on Kantor’s 900 thousand-euro yearly contribution - announced flash elections, and the debate was cut short.

“The EJC can become a strong and influent organisation, but since the day it was created, 20 years ago, it’s a sort of sleeping beauty. It doesn’t really do much of anything,” argues Cukierman. “Our lobbying isn’t well coordinated. Simultaneous initiatives are launched separately in different countries while we should work together. We have to be in permanent contact with decision-makers and with the media in order to inform the public. We should work with the WJC. The EJC used to be its European arm.”

I asked the EJC, for which I worked during a short period of time in 2007, to send me a review of its initiatives over the past couple of years to challenge Mr Cukierman’s remarks, but it failed to do so.
Its secretary general simply told me that the inner conflict was settled and that the vote was announced on time.

Regarding the UN-sponsored Durban II conference due to take place in Geneva in April, which several countries have decided to boycott, Serge Cwajgenbaum said the EJC was still holding meetings to decide whether it would take action or not…
“We have yet to decide whether we’ll participate in the conference or boycott it,” said Cwajgenbaum.

The lobby and the anti-Semitic epidemic

Anti-Semitism is still a major concern throughout Europe. The EJC often denounces anti-Jewish assaults but it lacks an efficient strategy.

The Jewish community in France faced the problem a few years back.

“When I arrived to the head of the CRIF at the beginning of the year 2000, a new wave of anti-Semitism had just erupted – twenty synagogues and schools had been burned down, rabbis had been attacked - yet the authorities, President Chirac and the Left-wing government refused to admit it. The attackers had to specifically write anti-Semitic tags when desecrating synagogues in order for the attacks to be considered anti-Semitic.”

Today, France has solid laws which worsen verdicts in cases of anti-Semitic attacks. The next step was to get actual convictions in court.
Education is another important part of the battle as anti-Jewish stereotypes have flourished in French schools. The media of coarse can't be ignored either. An unbiased coverage is essential to win over the war on the anti-Semitic drive.
This strategy has to be extended to the rest of Europe, especially in these times of crisis in which Europe’s Jewry fears a rise of anti-Semitism.

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