Interview: Moshe Kantor
A citizen of Israel with homes in Herzliya, Moscow and Geneva, Moshe Kantor is a philanthropist and community leader on the world scene: president of the Russian Jewish Congress and chairman of the Board of Governors of the European Jewish Congress. Trained as a space scientist, his businesses are in metals and fertilizer, with ventures from China to Ukraine. In September, Kantor, 52, spearheaded the 65th anniversary memorial of the Babi Yar massacre, through the World Holocaust Forum, which he also heads.
Q. Where does the Russian Jewish community find itself at a time when their country is being redefined?
A. Believe it or not, according to official Russian statistics, we have only 300,000 Jews in Russia. These are individuals who identify themselves as Jews. But all demographers concur that Russia has more than one million Jews today. So where…are the missing 700,000? Their estrangement [is] the result of two causes: Firstly, Stalinism’s effect is still felt. Many people are simply afraid to say out loud, “I am Jewish.” They view it safer to be identified as neutral. Another group might like to affiliate, but it is difficult for them to do so. Their parents or grandparents intentionally destroyed the documentation and the actual roots of belonging. The Russian Jewish Congress’s overriding goal today is to [enable] Jews to identify themselves as such and make our community stronger and more united. We undertake no less than 45 programs, supporting education from the earliest levels up through university and beyond. We have health programs, sporting programs, Holocaust-education programs, all geared to show the people that being Jewish is a very good thing.
Q. What impact on the Russian Jewish community did the emigration of more than one million Jews, many of them well educated, have on your efforts?
A. We don’t miss them. That is not a harsh statement but rather a loving one. We feel totally connected to the Jewish people worldwide, including those who live in Israel or America. We are one family. We never feel that those who left are cut off from us.
Q. Are you concerned by the continuing anti-Semitism in some sectors of Russian society? Recently, hundreds of public figures signed a letter that contained anti-Jewish sentiments.
A. Anti-Semitism is dangerous, whatever way it shows itself. We Jews definitely have the right to be paranoid. I see this as a healthy feeling. The letter you mentioned was actually signed by 500 individuals, including 20 members of the Duma [Parliament]. It was circulated just before the 60th commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz. I believe that the true intent…was to destroy the Russian president’s intentions to play a part in [the commemoration]. They wanted to send him a message that he is being closely watched and should not rush into such events. They failed totally because President Putin…appeared at the event and told the entire world that he deeply regrets…manifestations of anti-Semitism, which persist in Russia….
Q. Why are you so interested in Holocaust education and in creating big events to memorialize the Holocaust?
A. The Holocaust was an essential tool used to bring about the establishment of the State of Israel. In 2006, it is the most effective tool we have to fight against anti-Semitism and to protect Israel.
Q. Are Russian Jews, and those of Central Europe and Ukraine, second-class citizens within the organizations and elite of West European Jewry?
A. It’s evocative of the old story that when you see 10 Jews sitting round a table, the group contains 15 or 20 presidents of Jewish organizations. Jews are quick to wish to lead, but unfortunately much slower in respecting their own fellow Jews. Eastern Europe—and I am speaking of about 20 national communities—[is] developing quite nicely, receiving precious little patronage from their brothers in Western Europe. Few concede that Russian Jewry is by far the largest such community in Europe, far bigger than that of France. The Ukrainian Jewish community is third in size. We don’t need or ask for patronage. We only insist on respect and democratic representation for our communities. In Europe, we have a very good organization in which I play [an] active role, and the European Jewish Congress is in a position now to demonstrate that it is a real democratic body…. There has never been a more important time for this organization to respect democracy and adopt transparent means of operating.
Q. Does the stereotyping of Russians in Israel bother you: Russian Jewish businessmen are all mafiosos, all Russian Jewish women are call girls? How do you reverse such prejudice?
A. Look, no one denies that some Russians are criminals and prostitutes. So are some Israelis. The vast majority of Israeli Russians are good, law-abiding citizens. In some societies, becoming successful in business quickly is not considered a negative phenomenon. Many societies admire those individuals who move fast, make the right decision and act on fast-breaking opportunities. These people are not stealing from anyone, they are using their wits and capabilities to secure wealth.
Q. Are you pleased as a whole with how Russians are doing in Israel?
A. It is a subject of pride for the entire State of Israel. The only sector we have not succeeded in so far has been finding a meaningful place in government. Where are our Russian good guys in politics: Yuri Shtern, Natan Sharansky, Yvette Lieberman, Marina Solodkin, Yuli Edelstein? The whole world knows them, but they are generally out in the cold, though some are in the ruling coalition.
Q. How can Israel, Russian Jews and European Jewry all leverage the 60th anniversary of Israel’s founding in 2 years as a milestone to strengthen Israel and diaspora Jewry alike?
A. Every Jew should care enough to have his own answer to this question. My own answer is very definite. The Russian Jewish Congress…is already planning a variety of outstanding events…. By circumstance, the 60th anniversary falls on the same year as the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht. I think this is a clearly symptomatic and hugely symbolic overlap. Six hundred synagogues in Germany were destroyed on one day. Nazis formalized the concept that it was acceptable to murder the Jews. And then one mere decade later…the State of Israel was created. We must all remember one very optimistic reality: Hashem tests all of us, individually and as a people. In this testing, he also shows the way to liberation.
Q. You recently met Jewish leadership in New York and Washington. What impressions of American Jewish life did you get from the visit?
A. Compared to Europe, America is a Jewish paradise. American Jews are very well organized, take pride in their sense of community and religion, do not hide the fact they are Jews. Synagogue life, organizational life is quite robust, education seems strong and the community spends resources on developing itself. [But] I don’t feel that strong a sense of U.S. Jews relating so well to world Jewry. They seem to focus quite a lot on their local needs. That part is troubling, because we in Russia and Europe need the input and capabilities of American Jewry.
Q. I understand you are taking some steps to bridge this particular gap?
A. It is an extremely high priority for me. Some colleagues and I are establishing the European Jewish Fund. I want to mobilize 50 of the most serious Jewish donors in the world to create a big reservoir of financial resources, of which the dividends alone will be distributed annually, primarily to safeguard and encourage Jewish cultural development. The first initiative we are helping to promote is a Birthright-like program for Russia, with the graduates of this experience mobilized to play a continuing, important role within our other communal activities. We will also continue to conduct meaningful Holocaust commemorations.