France leads walkout at European Jewish Congress

As participants at this week’s European Jewish Congress General Assembly talked about the need to collectively combat increasing anti-Semitism in Europe and the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, French Jewish leaders led a three-country rebellion against the 42-member group.

Richard Prasquier, the president of the umbrella organization of French Jewry, announced that his country was suspending its membership in the congress after delegates voted 51-34 to approve the extension of EJC executive board terms from two years to four.

That gives the current EJC president, Russian-born mogul Moshe Kantor, two years beyond the term to which he was elected.

Denouncing the vote, Prasquier, along with leaders of the Austria and Portugal Jewish communities, said he could not be part of an “unethical” organization that retroactively enabled Kantor and the board to serve until 2011 when they were elected last June to terms that end in 2009.

The move by France, Portugal and Austria is part of a long-simmering battle over control of the EJC between some of the Western European nations involved in founding the congress and the Russian president that now controls it.

The three delegations have been at odds with Kantor since he defeated French incumbent Pierre Besnainou to become the first Eastern European president of the EJC, a subsidiary of the World Jewish Congress.

Florence Kaufmann, an EJC board member from Britain, said some Western European Jewish leaders simply “have a problem with the EJC being run from the East.”

She added, “Britain is not one of them.”

Kantor said the French delegates could not stand not being in charge of an organization they long had dominated. The French were founding members of the EJC about 20 years ago and frequently have been at its helm.

“This suspension was planned,” Kantor said. “It comes as no surprise and it was intended to sew disunity in the organization. This is really a bad idea when we need to be focusing on fighting anti-Semitism and Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons.”

Supporters of the term extension said the move will enable EJC officials to devote more time to core congress projects, including lobbying European governments on Israel’s behalf and improving Jewish and Holocaust education programs.

Joel Rubinfeld, the president of the Belgian Jewish umbrella group, said the French walkout was disappointing.

“I did not support the extension of term limits, but you don’t just leave an organization because you do not like the vote results,” he said. “That means you don’t accept democracy, and we have some important work ahead of us. We should be unified.”

French delegate Albert Cohen said he approved of France’s withdrawal from the EJC.

“Why should French Jewish interests be represented by Russia?” he asked.

Kantor said he would try to bring the Jewish leaders of the three countries back to the EJC in the coming weeks.

With some 600,000 Jews, France has Western Europe’s largest Jewish population and a strong influence on European politicians when it comes to matters of Jewish concern.

A Jewish leader from one of the three countries that suspended its EJC membership confirmed rumors that the three departing countries would try to set up a parallel Jewish organization that would exclude Russia and include only the 27 members of the European Union.

There was some resolution of discord at the one-day assembly. After 15 years of haggling over bylaws and voting procedures, EJC members finally adopted a constitution.

Secretary-General Serge Cwajgenbaum said delegates had used disputes over the constitution, which outlines basic procedures and goals, as a proxy for personal power games. But fatigue finally overcame ongoing debates about bylaws and the constitution passed.

“I think now we can focus on real issues, like working to stop assimilation and strengthening the diaspora relationship with Israel,” he said.