European Jewish Parliament off to a semi-comedic start

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berlin  |  If the slate of candidates is any indication, the European Jewish Parliament faces an uphill battle to be taken seriously.

Among the candidates for election announced by the new body are soccer star David Beckham, filmmaker Roman Polanski, comic actor Sacha Baron Cohen, fashion designer Diane von Furstenburg, and other famous and less-famous European Jews who likely never expressed an interest in running — if they even knew anything of the planned parliament at all.

Already, a number of Jews from around Europe, after learning they were on the list, demanded to be taken off.

Viviane Teitelbaum, a former head of the Belgian Jewish community who is a member of Brussels’ regional parliament, said she found out she was a so-called candidate only when people started writing to say they had voted for her.

MP Sacha Baron Cohen? Not likely.

“I said, ‘Where, why, how?’ ” said Teitelbaum, who asked to be removed. “I was wondering, how is it going to function? How is it going to be representative? How many people are going to vote? And they could have asked people if they wanted to be on the list.”

But at least one unwitting candidate said he liked the idea.

“I was indeed surprised to find my name on the list; nonetheless, the idea is an interesting one,” said Joel Rubinfeld, former chairman of the Com-mittee for the Coordina-tion of Jewish Organizations in Belgium.

Nevertheless, he said, elections for the parliament must “be conducted in a more professional way. For instance, it is not very serious to open elections with candidates who don’t even know they are on the list.”

The proposed parliament, which aims to bring issues of Jewish concern to the European Union — a role other groups already play — is the brainchild of billionaires Igor Kolomoisky and Vadim Rabinovitch.

The two Ukrainian Jewish businessmen and philanthropists have been seeking leadership positions recently in European Jewish life, and in the spring they launched a new organization called the European Jewish Union. Then in September, they established a new pro-Israel channel on YouTube called Jewish News One, or JN1.

According to Tomer Orni, CEO of the European Jewish Union, the Jewish parliament will have offices adjacent to the European Parliament in Brussels and will hold regular assemblies there. The Jewish parliament’s budget will be covered by the European Jewish Union, and the agenda is to be set by elected members.

Orni said the idea of the parliament — inspired by Israeli President Shimon Peres’ call for a Knesset of the diaspora — is to be a “platform for Jews from all corners of the continent,” including the former Soviet countries.

Ukrainian billionaire Igor Kolomoisky (left), one of the men behind the planned European Jewish Parliament, raises his glass for a toast with Israeli Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger in 2010. photo/jta/berlin chabad

“It brings new and high hopes for what could be a genuine move forward, away from behind-closed-doors community dealings to the next stage: democracy, representation from all across Europe, and West and East together as equals,” Orni said.

It’s not clear that Kolomoisky and Rabinovitch’s latest project will bring them any more success than their previous ones. One thing seems clear: The parliamentary election process has sparked annoyance and irritation among European Jewish leaders.

After European Jewish Congress leaders began receiving calls from members confused about how they had landed on the list of candidates, the leaders circulated a memo saying they are “not connected in any way to this initiative and do not support it.”

“Let’s be honest, it does not look serious,” said Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary general of the Brussels-based EJC. “How can you bypass organized European Jewry and through the Internet call for people to elect or appoint whomever they have selected on whatever ground, on what basis God knows? It will only create tension in a time when it is necessary to be strong and united.”

The parliament brouhaha comes a year after Kolomoisky tried to become president of the European Council of Jewish Communities — a low-profile organization founded more than 40 years ago to promote Jewish culture, heritage, education and community — by pledging $14 million to the group over five years. Rabinovitch already was an ECJC vice president.

But after members of the ECJC resigned in protest, Kolomoisky withdrew his bid, Rabinovitch quit his post, and the two instead decided to create the European Jewish Union.

After launching the union in April at a conference at Euro Disney, Kolomoisky and Rabinovitch also unveiled their plans for a 120-member parliament that would serve as a voice for European Jewry. With the billionaires’ European Jewish Union coming under criticism for being opaque and undemocratic, the parliament was conceived as its democratic component.

For its part, the ECJC urged members to decide for themselves if they want to be candidates and to inform the union if they did not.

Meanwhile, elections continue. A few controversial names have been dropped from the list, including French entertainer Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, who has been prosecuted in France for anti-Semitic remarks, and German nationalist extremist Constantin von Hoffmeister. Other names, such as Beckham and fashion designer Stella McCartney, remain.

“If Stella McCartney will hit the charts and does not want to be a parliament member, the next one in line will take her place,” Orni said. “The legal team has predetermined that if someone is elected and doesn’t want to take part, the next one with the second-biggest number of votes will be elected instead.”

Orni said that more than 1,000 candidates have registered or been registered by others.

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.