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Say goodbye to Russian oligarchs

Jewish organizations exist to serve their communities, not the individuals who fund them. This cozy exchange cannot—and should not—survive the war in Ukraine.

Moshe Kantor. Credit: Roman Yanushevsky/Shutterstock.
Moshe Kantor. Credit: Roman Yanushevsky/Shutterstock.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz and many other publications.

The International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe is the perfect example of an organization with an imposing name and an illustrious advisory board that you’ve still never heard of.

The forum’s board gathers such figures as Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. Secretary of State; Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister; and Igor Ivanov, who served as Russian foreign minister at the turn of the century, under both Boris Yeltsin and then Vladimir Putin. The forum’s purpose is to encourage dialogue between the United States and Russia in order to avert a nuclear confrontation between the two world powers. Quite what it does is unclear, at least from its website, which was last updated on Feb. 22 with an anodyne statement describing Russia’s intentions in Ukraine as “clouded,” but warning against further escalation nonetheless. (Russia invaded Ukraine less than a week later.)

At the forum’s summit sits its founder and president, the Russian-Jewish oligarch known as Moshe Kantor in the Israeli and Western media, and as Vyatcheslav Kantor in the Russian press. Last Thursday, he was one of eight oligarchs sanctioned by the British government in its latest bid to turn the financial screws on Putin and his acolytes in the worlds of politics and business. Kantor, whose fortune is estimated in the region of $4.5 billion, is the principal shareholder in Acron, a fertilizer company with “vital strategic significance for the Russian government,” according to a statement from the Foreign Office in London.

Not all of Russia’s oligarchs—entrepreneurs who bought out state-owned companies at rock-bottom prices following the collapse of the Soviet Union—have remained close to Putin, but Kantor has. In 2016, Putin awarded Kantor the Russian Order of Honor for his achievements in industry. An accompanying Acron press release noted proudly that the pair had visited the company’s site in the city of Veliky Novgorod “designed and built by Russian experts without engaging foreign contactors” for the extraction of rare earth elements (REE)—metals that can be utilized in refining and other industrial processes and also for a range of military uses. “Creating REE operations based on the Russian production facility is strategically important for ensuring national security and instrumental for phasing out REE imports in the Russian market,” the same press release added, in a sentence that likely raised eyebrows among the Foreign Office mandarins in London.

Among those oligarchs of Jewish origin, Kantor is the one most closely associated with Jewish causes, although Roman Abramovich—the best-known oligarch of all—is also a significant player in the Jewish world. Kantor is, among other honorifics, the head of the European Jewish Congress (EJC), a position from which he resigned on April 8; the founder of the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary Jewry at Tel Aviv University; and a significant donor to the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) and Community Security Trust (CST) in the United Kingdom, his main residence. His philanthropy has transformed the Jewish world in the 15 years since he was elected as the EJC’s president. The fact that Kantor is now a subject of sanctions, along with Abramovich, Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and other Jewish oligarchs, will have harsh material consequences for Jewish organizations working in areas from education to welfare to political advocacy.

Indeed, Israel’s national memorial to the Holocaust, Yad Vashem, admitted as much when it took the unusual step of writing to U.S. Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides urging the Biden administration not to sanction Abramovich, specifically citing his backing for Jewish causes. The letter was sent shortly after Abramovich donated $3 million to Yad Vashem, making him the second-largest donor to the institution after the late Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson.

On March 10, however, Yad Vashem suspended its “strategic partnership” with Abramovich. Even if that was not the institution’s first choice, it was still a wise one. Many of the sanctioned oligarchs have busily insisted that they have no ties to Putin and are opposed to the bestial invasion of Ukraine in a transparent bid to recover their fortunes. Abramovich has even claimed that he was poisoned while trying to broker an agreement between Moscow and Kyiv in early March, though no photographs were ever released of the swollen eyes and peeling skin the oligarch was reportedly left with.

Jewish organizations should play no part in pushing the narrative of oligarch benevolence. It’s certainly true that our community has benefited from their largesse, but that would not have been possible had Western governments, banks and investment funds not fallen over themselves to attract the oligarchs’ investments in property, media, marquee sports teams and other valuable assets in the first place. Moreover, in accepting their hefty donations, Jewish organizations provided oligarchs with an equally valuable service, allowing their names to be associated primarily with philanthropic and charitable works, rather than their murky relations with the dictator in the Kremlin.

That cozy exchange cannot—and should not—survive the war in Ukraine. Jewish organizations exist to serve their communities, not the individuals who fund them. In that sense, the EJC’s indignant response to the British government’s measures against Kantor represents an unfortunate low for that organization.

Describing itself as “deeply shocked and appalled” in a statement issued on April 6, the EJC sought to portray Kantor as an individual beyond reproach who has “dedicated his life to the security and well-being of Europe’s Jewish communities and the fight against antisemitism, racism and xenophobia.” While that might be true, it doesn’t address any of the serious concerns about his business activities that led the British government to sanction Kantor. Nor does it address the fundamental reason for the sanctions—Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, in which a degree of military incompetence has been compensated for by monstrous war crimes that include torture, mass executions and rape.

Other Jewish groups must avoid falling into the same trap. Apart from anything, the awful optics of standing up for a handful of oligarchs whose protector is now engaged in some of the worst atrocities seen in Europe since World War II should be self-evident.

So far, Jewish communities in Europe and the United States, along with tens of thousands of ordinary Israelis who have demonstrated in Tel Aviv and other cities, have distinguished themselves in their response to Ukraine’s plight, in both humanitarian and political terms. That is a stance to be proud of. And it means that the time has come to say goodbye to the oligarchs.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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