At swanky philanthropy conference, politics is the elephant in the room
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Reporter's Notebook

At swanky philanthropy conference, politics is the elephant in the room

The Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, which recently held a two-day conference in Herzliya, may be the most influential organization most Israelis have never heard of

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

The Euro-Asian Jewish Congress gala dinner at the Dan Arcadia Hotel in Herzliya, March 18, 2019. (The Times of Israel)
Times of Israel

At the opening gala of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress General Assembly on March 18, the wine and kosher red caviar flowed freely, as billionaires rubbed shoulders with prominent rabbis and politicians. A who’s-who list of oligarchs from the former Soviet Union, many of whose names often appear in headlines, flew to Israel for the two-day event at the swanky Dan Accadia hotel in Herzliya, where they listened to speeches, voted on resolutions, and watched presentations from grateful recipients of their philanthropy.

Curiously, despite the fascinating combination of money, power, religion, and international relations on display at this high-profile event, few journalists could be spotted among the attendees.

The Euro-Asian Jewish Congress (EAJC), its spokespeople told The Times of Israel, is one of five regional branches of the World Jewish Congress, an organization founded in 1936 to “act as the diplomatic arm of the Jewish people,” by combating anti-Semitism, helping Jewish communities in need, and funding educational initiatives.

Organizers of the event explained that the EAJC represents the Jewish communities of 25 countries (Azerbaijan, Albania, Armenia, Belarus, Croatia, North Macedonia, Georgia, India, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Monaco, Mongolia, Montenegro, Myanmar, New Zealand, Philippines, Russia, Serbia, Singapore, Slovenia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine). Nevertheless, some of these communities are tiny and the dominant language at the confab was, without question, Russian.

Russian-speaking Likud minister Ze’ev Elkin arrived early, chatting animatedly with attendees, some of whom have financially supported his political campaigns. Other invited guests, as evidenced by name cards outside the banquet hall, included Likud Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Likud Minister Yoav Galant, Jerusalem mayor Moshe Lion, Sephardi chief rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Israel Hayom editor Boaz Bismuth, and prominent Israeli supermarket chain owner Rami Levy. Elkin and Yosef delivered speeches in person, while Edelstein, President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent video greetings to those attending the gala dinner.

Itzhak Belenkiy, a spokesman for the EAJC, told The Times of Israel that what motivates the organization’s wealthy donors to drop what they’re doing and fly to Israel for the two-day event are “strong Jewish sentiments and a desire to contribute to the community.” In fact, he said, some of the EAJC’s philanthropists take their responsibility so seriously that they single-handedly keep some of the organization’s smaller communities alive.

The Times of Israel spoke to several such donors who expressed warm sentiments towards Israel.

“Every Jew feels the same way about Israel,” said Vadim Rabinovich, a Ukrainian politician and a vice-president of the EAJC. “This is why we send our kids here, why we visit and why we invest here.”

But there is little doubt that for at least some of the 150 attendees, the opportunity to network with the powerful and wealthy also exerted a powerful draw.

From left to right EAJC Vice Presidents Boris Lozhkin and Temur Ben-Yehuda, EAJC Chairman Aaron Frenkel, EAJC President Michael Mirilashvili, EAJC CEO Haim Ben-Yakov (Courtesy)

For instance, the EAJC’s president, and most generous philanthropist, is Mikhail Mirilashvili, a Russian-Israel who is ranked by the Russian-language publication “Business St. Petersburg” as the second-wealthiest man in St. Petersburg, with a net worth of 229 billion rubles ($3.6 billion). He is also reported to be on good terms with Netanyahu.

At the gala dinner, Mirilashvili presided over the head table, as a small group of other delegates buzzed around him in the hope of exchanging a few words. “Would you like to speak to Mikhail?” this reporter overheard one invitee asking another in Hebrew. “I can make the introduction.”

During a session of the assembly devoted to the EAJC’s philanthropic projects, one recipient after another rose to thank Mirilashvili. A Chabad rabbi from Montenegro, for instance, told the crowd that JFuture, an initiative that funds Jewish Sunday schools, had injected vitality into his community.

A community leader from Azerbaijan described persistent worries that Jewish life in Azerbaijan “is coming to an end and kids are disappearing.” He thanked Mirilashvili for his support and said that the Sunday schools had attracted new families to the community. “Some of these families now come to synagogue on a permanent basis,” he said beaming.

Israel as a ‘channel of communication’

Ariel Bulshtein, a lawyer and Likud activist who heads the EAJC’s public diplomacy project, spoke to the delegates about a different aspect of the organization’s work — its efforts to influence global public opinion in Israel’s favor. His presentation suggested that EAJC exerts enormous behind-the-scenes influence on Israeli diplomacy abroad.

Speaking Russian, Bulshtein began by explaining to those assembled that it is both in Israel’s interest and in that of Diaspora Jewish communities that the public in these countries perceive Israel in “an objective and honest way.”

Ariel Bulshtein (Courtesy of EAJC)

To this end, he said, EAJC’s public diplomacy program cultivates relationships with thought leaders in its 25 constituent countries. These thought leaders include businesspeople, academics, journalists, politicians, cultural leaders, and bloggers. EAJC encourages these individuals to visit Israel and likewise sponsors prominent Israelis to speak to such groups abroad, with EAJC acting as an intermediary between the Israelis and their foreign counterparts.

“Just a little example,” he said. “We’ve reached an agreement with the Knesset that all outgoing and incoming delegations of the Knesset to all countries of the Euro-Asian region cooperate with us. This means that we have the opportunity to host incoming delegations and create special programs for them as well as exercise influence over the programs of outgoing delegations that are heading to your countries.”

Bulshtein told his audience that the EAJC is not trying to replace official Israeli government structures, but in fact works closely with them.

“I want to give an example here. The Moscow embassy of Israel closely cooperates with us. For example, we organized the most recent political visit of Knesset members to Russia.”

He added that the EAJC regularly collaborates with Israel’s Government Press Office, its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and with the Ministry of Strategic Affairs. He mentioned that the EAJC had arranged for Likud politician Uzi Dayan to speak at Russia’s National Research University Higher School of Economics and the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. Bulshtein described the latter institution as a once having been a stronghold of anti-Israel sentiment.

He also said that the EAJC has been collaborating with Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs to counteract the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Bulshtein’s list of accomplishments did not stop there. He went on to hint that EAJC is involved in diplomacy at the highest level.

“Many countries of the region — I am intentionally speaking covertly — are very much interested in creating channels with the political leaders of Israel and we provide them with this channel. I want to say that the importance of establishing such channels was expressed on both sides — the Russian and Israeli one. It actually sounded like an order — ‘go and help us establish such channels.’”

Bulshtein then told the delegates about several exciting programs the EAJC has planned for 2019.

“The first is a conference that we are planning to organize in Moscow together with the largest Israeli newspaper, Israel Hayom,” he said. “This will be the first international conference at this level outside Israel, except for the similar events taking place in the United States, such as the Saban and Jerusalem Post conferences,” he pointed out. “Events like this have never taken place outside the US and will be organized at the top level. I invite you to take part.”

Bulshtein went on to describe a Republicans Overseas convention planned for October, organized by Israeli Republican activist Marc Zell.

Mikhail Mirilashvili (Courtesy of EAJC)

“This year, the Republican party of the United States will hold a conference in Israel,” he announced.

“The highest level of American participants will take part in this event. We have approached the organizers suggesting that they include not only Israeli participants but also participants from the EAJC. For Jewish communities that are members of the EAJC, this is a real opportunity to enhance your authority in the eyes of political or other elites of your countries, because this is a real chance to use Israel as a communication channel between your countries’ elites and the ruling elites of the United States. It goes without saying what an important political tool this is considering the current political situation.”

‘Not a political organization’

Despite Bulshtein’s personal affiliation with the Likud party, and the prominence of Likud politicians at the event, representatives of EAJC interviewed by The Times of Israel were careful not to voice political positions.

“The EAJC is very conscious not to make political statements,” Belenkiy said. “We do not participate in political activity.”

A plenary session at the EAJC General Assembly, March 18, 2019 (Courtesy)

Asked what he thinks about the upcoming Israeli elections, EAJC vice president and Ukrainian media tycoon Boris Lozhkin said “I am not a specialist in Israeli policies so I think it’s better to ask politicians.”

Temur Ben Yehuda, also known as Teimuraz Khikhinashvili, first vice president of the EAJC and chairman of the Israeli-Russian Business Council, replied: “I am not a political figure and am not interested in politics. I can speak of economic ties between Israel and Russia and the current political team that leads those economic ties. I think they’re doing good work, and I would like to wish success to whatever team is elected and I hope they continue the good work.”

However, both men were happy and amenable to speak about economic ties between their countries and Israel.

“Israel is a very cool place for me, especially around economic issues,” said Lozhkin, who hails from the Ukraine. “Despite all the terrorist attacks, you see major projects and a huge increase in direct foreign investments and so on. I think Israel is a very good example of how to build a new modern digital economy in difficult circumstances.”

Ben Yehuda, who divides his time between Israel and Russia, told The Times of Israel that “Russia is a huge market with huge potential while Israel has huge abilities. The combination of both can bring both parties to major achievements.”

He said there is potential for cooperation between Israel and Russia on smart cities technology, water technology, medicine and agriculture.

A united organization

Asked what he deemed to be the most significant aspect of the event, EAJC spokesman Asher Gold said “there is something unique about the unity of this organization,” adding that the fact that the organization is so harmonious can even be perceived as boring.

“The fact is that you see here the highest profile representatives from the Ukraine and from Russia, and they sit together; there are no tensions, no problems. On our board, we have Boris Lozhkin [from the Ukraine] and Vadim Rabinovich [from the Ukraine].”

Asked if Lozhkin and Rabinovich actually differ politically from their Russian counterparts and, if, for example, an oligarch like Igor Kolomoisky, who actively opposes and criticizes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, could be part of the EAJC, Gold pointed out that Kolomoisky’s business partner Gennadiy Bogolyubov had accepted an invitation to attend the gala dinner that evening.

Things have not always been so harmonious within the EAJC. Last spring, the organization ended its relationship with one of its member associations, the Vaad Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine. The EAJC claimed that the Vaad’s leader, former Soviet political prisoner Josef Zissels, had violated the organization’s commitment to political neutrality by making anti-Putin statements.

In a telephone interview with The Times of Israel, Zissels, one of three co-founders of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress in 2002, accused Mirilashvili, who was elected president of the EAJC in July 2017, of redirecting the organization in a pro-Kremlin direction.

Josef Zissels is a Jewish community leader who spent nearly 10 years in a Soviet prison and is an advocate of the pro-independence Ukrainian revolution. (Courtesy Vaad of Ukrainian Jews/via JTA)

He said that in 2015, Dr. Haim Ben-Yakov, a close associate of Mirilashvili, created an Israeli non-profit organization called the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, a name identical to the organization Zissels had co-founded in 2002 in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Zissels claimed that after August 2017, Mirilashvili proceeded to funnel his financial contributions through the new Israeli-based EAJC (which he calls EAJC-2015) as opposed to the old Kazakhstan-based one (which he calls EAJC-2002), in a way that circumvented the democratic decision-making processes that had existed in the old organization. In the April 2018 protocol of a meeting that explained the Ukrainian Va’ad’s decision to leave the EAJC-2015, the Va’ad leadership stated that they had been made to understand that funding would be stripped from any member organization whose leaders spoke out against the “neo-imperial tendencies” and “blatant military aggression” of Russia.

Zissels told The Times of Israel that the Va’ad of Ukraine had written to the World Jewish Congress asking it to rule on the problem that there are now two competing organizations called the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.

As evidence of what he described as the EAJC-2015’s pro-Russia tendencies, Zissels pointed to the fact that in December 2017, Mirilashvili’s Euro-Asian Jewish Congress signed a memorandum of cooperation with Rabbi Berel Lazar’s Federation of Jewish communities of Russia (FJCR), which he characterized as a staunchly pro-Kremlin organization.

Rabbi Lazar, whose public statements are consistently admiring of the Russian leader, featured prominently in a video the EAJC showed at its gala dinner.

Zissels also pointed to the fact that Netanyahu recently invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit Israel in May 2019, for the inauguration of a monument commemorating the Siege of Leningrad. This monument was mainly funded by Mirilashvili’s EAJC, said Zissels.

“At the moment Putin is suffering from a kind of international semi-blockade,” Zissels said. “He has had some problems with sanctions and with the recognition of his actions on an international scale, and when he is invited to events like this, he receives a kind of legitimization.”

Zissels argued that what is at the heart of his dispute with the Israeli EAJC-2015 is no less than an attempt to bring the Jews of Eurasia and Israel into Russia’s sphere of influence.

“They want to create the illusion that all of the communities of the Eurasian Jewish region, including the communities in Europe, are pro-Putin. You should approach the head of every community and ask them if they are really pro-Putin or not.”

The EAJC firmly rejected Zissels’ claims. In response to Zissels’ accusations, the EAJC issued the following response:

“EAJC assiduously protects the interests of Jewish communities wherever they may be. The Ukrainian Jewish community plays a crucial role in the work of EAJC. For years, Yosyf Zisels prevented any collaboration between the Congress and Ukraine’s leading Jewish organizations, working only with groups closely related to Zisels himself. After Zisels stepped down from his leadership position at EAJC, the Congress began fruitful collaboration with the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, the Confederation of Jewish Organizations of Ukraine, and Ukraine’s Chief Rabbi Azman. EAJC has been collaborating with these organizations on a number of strategic programs. Yosyf Zisels had been warned on numerous occasions that his public support of Ukrainian radical nationalists is unacceptable within the framework of EAJC activities.”

“As regards the memorandum on collaboration with the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, it signals a strategic partnership with Russia’s largest Jewish organization and is aimed at supporting the Russian Jewry. Concerning President Vladimir Putin’s invitation to the opening of the memorial dedicated to the victims of the Leningrad blockade mentioned by Zisels, it should be reminded that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu invited Putin during his official working visit to Moscow. It is important to keep in mind that the largest number of former victims and defenders of the Leningrad blockade outside Russia currently reside in Israel. The memorial will be funded by EAJC as a tribute to the memory of the people of Leningrad who perished during the blockade, including Leningrad’s Jewish population. Attendance of the opening ceremony by Russian President and Israeli prime minister underscores the importance of this project.”

“After Alexander Mashkevitch retired from the presidency of EAJC in 2010, the Congress went through difficult times, with all the activities of the legal entity in Kazakhstan having been put on hold and the organization being on the verge of a shutdown. All steps are being taken in strict compliance with the laws of Kazakhstan, EAJC’s official Statute, and based on executive decisions of this legal entity, which excludes Mr. Yosyf Zisels. It should be noted that the Congress was officially registered in Israel in accordance with the decision of the EAJC Board and Assembly in order to achieve transparency and efficiency in management and also owing to the Israel’s central place within the contemporary Jewish world. All the organizations, which were formerly EAJC members, including the Jewish community of Kazakhstan, officially joined the new international organization registered in Israel. EAJC has official recognition and coordinates its activities with other international organizations, such as the World Jewish Congress, Jewish National Fund, Keren Hayesod, and the Jewish Agency. All legal entities registered under the Kazakhstani legal entity will be shut down. Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine, or VAAD, cancelled its membership in EAJC voluntarily and stopped any collaboration with EAJC. Yosyf Zisels holds no positions within EAJC and has no authority to represent the Organization.”

Among the notable invitees at the EAJC event were Chairman of the EAJC Aaron Frenkel, former Israel Beitenu Knesset member Leon Litinetsky, and Executive Vice President of the World Jewish Congress Robert Singer, as well as the businessmen, Victor Naishuller, German Zakharyaev, Boris Spektor, Alexander Levin, Nathan Zolotarevsky, Emmanuil Grinshpun, Mark Shabad, Aleksandr Bilinkis, and binary options kingpin Pini Peter.

Maxim Reider contributed to this report.

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