Jüdische Allgemeine: Interview with Dr Ariel Muzicant on the challenges facing European Jewry

Dr. Ariel Muzicant, EJC interim President and honorary president of the Jewish Community of Vienna, gave an interview to Michael Thaidigsmann of the Jüdische Allgemeine.

Mr. Muzicant, you were appointed interim president of the European Jewish Congress (EJC) following the resignation of Moshe Kantor. What are your priorities in the coming months?
We are in a critical situation. First is the concern for the safety of Jews in Europe. We don’t even know yet how the war in Ukraine will play out or how dramatic its effects will be for Europe. For example, we don’t know if unemployment will rise sharply in case there is a gas embargo on Russia. We are already seeing terrible numbers with respect to antisemitism. I don’t want to paint an overly bleak picture, but we have to prepare for the case it becomes even worse.

We also have to keep in mind the consequences if a nuclear agreement with Iran is signed. And of course, I have to try and secure the financial future of the EJC. There is still enough money in the bank to pay staff salaries in the coming months, but we need long-term financing for the organization. I have already held initial talks on this.

In the past 15 years, Moshe Kantor financed the EJC practically on his own.
And I am also very grateful to him for that.

But doesn’t it put an organization in a bad position if it is maintained and run exclusively by a single, very wealthy man?
I totally agree with you. Yet that does not only apply to the EJC, but to all larger Jewish organizations. It also applies not only to Russian businessmen, but equally to Americans and others. And not only in the Jewish Diaspora. Just look at Israel: Most of the institutions there – I only cite a few like Beit Hatfutsot, Tel Aviv University or Hebrew University Jerusalem – are dramatically dependent on a few rich Jews. This was also the case in the past.

These donors are also pursue their personal interests …
Of course, each of them have their own reasons, one shouldn’t fool oneself. We are dramatically dependent on the money of rich Jews. And so is Israel. The country would not be where it is today had it not been for these large donations.

What can be changed?
One thing is clear: I can’t build a powerful organization if my member associations only contribute a few thousand euros per year. Over 20 years ago already, I – together with the then EJC President Michel Friedman and others – thought about how to put the EJC on a solid financial footing. At the time, it was heavily dependent on Edgar Bronfman, the then-president of the World Jewish Congress. We discussed the idea of a foundation, a large European Jewish fund, into which rich people would pay in, but without exerting any influence themselves. However, as we know, it didn’t happen.

Currently, because of the war started by Russia, many Jews are fleeing from Ukraine, but also from Russia and other neighbouring countries. So far, one has heard very little from the EJC on this topic. Will that change under your leadership?
No. You won’t get a statement from me or the EJC on this. I’ll also tell you why: Depending on how you count, there are up to a million Jews living in those countries. Many of them are afraid. What they expect from us is that we help them, that we support and protect them. Our job is not to make statements. That would not change anything except perhaps triggering some applause from within our own ranks. No one can seriously claim that Putin can be persuaded to change his policy by words coming from the president of a Jewish organization. But such statement can do real damage to people, and I don’t want that to happen. That’s why I put an end to the cacophony within EJC on this subject.

Are there concrete aid projects that the EJC has initiated?
Yes, there are, near the borders of Ukraine and within the country itself. But I do not want to say a lot more about it, I hope you understand. Many of these projects, by the way, were funded by Moshe Kantor, outside of the EJC budget, and I will now have to look for alternative sources of funding.

In light of the recent developments, do you see a future for Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe?
The Jewish people are known to be very resilient. Nobody would have believed that after the Shoah, after Stalin and the long years of communism, Jewish life could be
rebuilt in Eastern Europe. Yet there is no question that we have a mega-problem coming up. In the next 20 or 30 years, possibly half of the Jews could leave Europe. Smaller Jewish communities would bleed out – not only because of antisemitism, by the way, but also because of assimilation and a lack of commitment to Jewish education. We cannot rest on our laurels but must work harder to prevent that from happening. And Israel must also help the Jewish Diaspora in this respect.

In France, Marine Le Pen scored more than 41 percent of the vote two weeks ago, and right-wing parties are growing stronger in other EU countries. How should the Jewish community deal with this?
I have always been very clear: We do not want to and must not have anything to do with these political forces! In most of them, be it in Hungary or in Germany, there is a deep antisemitic sentiment. They try to conceal it, of course, but the brown muck comes out of officials of many of these parties eventually. Here in Austria, we have a prime example of this in the form of FPÖ leader Herbert Kickl. He is that kind of “mini Goebbels” who would sell his own grandmother if that were to bring him votes. During the Covid pandemic, Kickl even recommended that people treat themselves with horse deworming products. Antisemitism has always emerged in these parties, especially when it came to Israel.

Kickl already served as Austrian Interior Minister, the ÖVP under Sebastian Kurz brought him and his party into the government in 2017 …
Yes. But I think the ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party) won’t do that again. Having said that, I’m not a prophet, and I can’t vouch for the SPÖ (Social Democrats) either.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the fore a lot of antisemitism on the far-left as well. Is that proof that the horseshoe theory is correct?
The far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon is not one bit better than Le Pen’s party when it comes to antisemitism. And most of the Israel-bashing we see nowadays comes from leftist corners.

Do you consider yourself more as an interim president, or do you aspire to lead the EJC in the long term?
Look, I’m 70 years old now. I already retired as president of the Jewish Community of Vienna in 2012, and actually I had no plans to become president of such an organization again. Besides, I continue to be professionally active and have enough other hobbies and interests that takes up my time. I am an extremely content person even without this office. I am doing this now out of responsibility for the EJC, but I will not enter an election campaign to stay in office. At the helm of Jewish organizations you often find people who strive to get re-elected unanimously every few years. I doubt whether that is a good thing. One should stop before one is carried one out the door horizontally.


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