BERLIN –– A new European Jewish parliament opened in Brussels last week, the brainchild of two philanthropists on a mission to shake up the status quo.
Igor Kolomoisky and Vadim Rabinovich, the Ukrainian Jewish moguls behind the body, founded the European Jewish Union last spring and feted their new parliament in ceremonies at the EU Parliament last week. According to their invitation, 120 Jewish members of parliament were chosen by 403,810 voters from all over Europe.
But who are these representatives? And what exactly will they do? That remains a mystery.
Among the candidates in the elections were soccer star David Beckham, filmmaker Roman Polanski, comic actor Sacha Baron Cohen and fashion designer Diane von Furstenburg, as well as other famous and less-famous European Jews –many of whom never expressed an interest in running and didn’t know anything about the planned parliament.
Two days before the EJU was to fete the new parliament, its website did not list the representatives' names. EJU officials declined to respond to questions from JTA about the parliament before its launch.
But the agenda is simple, Rabinovich wrote in a column last month in the Jerusalem Post: European Jewry is “a broken record” and needs change.
“The same people have remained in power, and the word that describes the situation best is ‘monotony,’ ” wrote Rabinovich, who with Kolomoisky also founded a Jewish TV news station, Jewish News One, in September.
“There is nothing horrible about change, despite the threat it poses to the elderly activists."
The description riles European Jewish leaders who were elected by their local Jewish communities. They have been telling their EU contacts not to take the newcomers seriously, including in an open letter in December that referred to Kolomoisky and Rabinovich as "two private businessmen from Ukraine."
Critics see the EJU and its parliament as a joke at best, and at worst as a stab in the back from the two Ukrainian Jewish leaders after established groups have spent decades working to rebuild Jewish life in postwar Europe after the fall of communism.
The criticism escalated last week when word spread that the EJU had invited the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the umbrella organization for 51 U.S. Jewish groups on matters of foreign policy, to attend the parliament inauguration while spurning elected leaders of local Jewish communities.
“Working with the EJU would offend European communities, and I am sure you would like to avoid that,” Meyer Habib, vice-president of the French Jewish community, wrote in an e-mail to Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice-chairman of the Presidents Conference.
Hoenlein led the Presidents Conference mission to Brussels before it headed to Israel. He told JTA that his organization came to meet with EU leaders and did not attend the opening of the EJU parliament.
However, Hoenlein did acknowledge that the Presidents Conference used the EJU's facilities in Brussels and that his group had accepted an offer from the EJU to charter a plane to fly the mission’s participants from Brussels to Tel Aviv.
“It was their gesture, otherwise we would have been stuck in Brussels for Shabbat,” Hoenlein said, noting that the CEO of the EJU, Tomer Orni, is an old friend. Orni declined to speak with JTA for this story.
It wasn’t clear whether there were any meetings in Brussels between the EJU and the Presidents Conference, but the idea that American Jewry’s leading foreign policy umbrella organization might be lending credence to the EJU has riled even some American Jewish friends of European Jewish leaders.
Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee’s director of international Jewish affairs, told JTA that he had urged the Presidents Conference to reconsider any alliance with EJU.
“Most of the established Jewish community leadership organizations stand in a kind of formal opposition to this newly formed group,” Baker said, adding that “it would be a mistake” to collaborate with them.
It’s more than simple intergroup rivalry, according to Baker, noting concerns that he and European Jewish leaders have about Rabinovich’s background.
Rabinovich spent nine years in a Soviet prison for theft from the state, and a 2003 New York Times report suggested that Rabinovich has been barred from entering the United States. Rabinovich, who did not respond to interview requests for this story made through his Jewish One channel, has said that his imprisonment was politically motivated and related to his being Jewish, and a state department official told JTA that it does not maintain a list of individuals barred from entering the country.
Baker said Rabinovich's reputation could damage relations between the European Union and Jewish organizations.
For his part, Hoenlein suggested the tempest among European Jewish leaders was about intergroup rivalries between people like Moshe Kantor, the Russian businessman philanthropist who is the elected head of the European Jewish Congress, and Rabinovich and Kolomoisky.
Maurice Sosnowski, the head of Belgium’s Jewish community, said all of this could be confusing for EU parliamentarians when they get knocks on their doors from individuals purporting to represent the Jewish people.
“If everyone wants to show that they represent the Jewish community, then [EU officials] won’t know who to shake hands with,” Sosnowski said. “And maybe one day they will not shake hands anymore.”