The European Jewish Congress (EJC) is an international nongovernmental organisation founded in 1986, bringing together 42 European Jewish communities (about 2.5 million people). The EJC is headquartered in Paris and has offices in Berlin, Brussels, Budapest and Strasbourg. Vyacheslav Kantor has been the organisation’s president since 2007.
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President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Friends, allow me to warmly welcome you to Moscow.
I would like to say at the beginning of our conversation that we view your organisation – and this is one of the most prestigious European non-governmental organisations – as Russia’s natural ally in the fight against xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and various manifestations of extreme views, and our direct allies in preserving the memory of World War II, the consequences of that catastrophe of a global scale, the Holocaust.
I want to thank members of your organisations, perhaps as no one else, for directly hindering the glorification of Nazism in the past and in the present, and doing this openly, clearly, without any hesitation, and very effectively – you may be one of the few organisations directly stating your position on this matter.
Moreover, I would like to note, and you probably know this, that members of the Jewish faith in Russia (Judaism is one of Russia’s traditional religions, which is reflected in our law) are highly engaged in public and religious activities.
As you know, in 2012, we opened the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre through our Jewish Centre. I visited it myself and I must say that it leaves a strong impression. I think that this is not just a centre for members of the Jewish faith or even just a centre for Russian Jews; rather, it is a nationwide centre that tells the various pages of our nation’s history, and everything there is done with great talent.
It houses the Schneerson library, which was the bone of contention for some time between the American Jewish community and us. But I hope now that these books have become freely available to everyone who wants to read them, those who want to use them for research, which is also of great interest – I think we should no longer have a problem here. I hope that everyone who wants to, who truly wants to hold these books in their hands, to work with them, will get that opportunity. In my view, the situation has changed fundamentally.
But it’s not just about the fact that the Jewish community or communities are working in Russia’s major cities; they work practically across the entire country. I cannot recall all the exact details now, but new synagogues and secular centres are being opened. Just recently, a new centre opened not far from Moscow. I haven’t had time to go there, but the rabbi there invited me, I will certainly go there and see it. I have seen photos, though; the design is very modern, but at the same time, quite modest. This is a kind of an educational centre and a religious centre too.
And as I already said, things are developing in this respect in Russia’s regions, both from a clerical and secular standpoint. I would like to note that we are finding full understanding with representatives of Jewish communities. I hope this will continue in the future.
I believe we met with the Executive Committee in 2007. We hope we will be able to establish an intensive dialogue with the European Jewish organisations – directly or through our representatives, who are sitting to my left and right.
Once again, welcome! I am very happy to see you.
President of the European Jewish Congress Vyacheslav Kantor: Thank you very much, Mr President, for your warm words.
Of course, we know that you are a true friend of the Russian Jewish community, helping the community not only morally, but in all possible dimensions and respects. And even the fact that you know about the opening of this wonderful synagogue in Rublevka area, and your desire to visit it – for us, this is an important signal of the Russian President’s everyday participation in the community’s current affairs.
Mr President, this is actually my third meeting with the President of Russia. And you personally participated in the projects implemented by the Congress. This is, first and foremost, the anniversary of the liberation by the Red Army of the Auschwitz camp – an anniversary that we will once again celebrate together soon, in just a few days, throughout Europe. We are grateful to you for the fact that our conversations have always been open and trust-based, even on sensitive topics.
And this time, we have come to you with a very frank talk, because we have alarming news. The position of Jews in Europe today is the worst since World War II. Jews are afraid, and a new exodus of Jews from Europe is entirely possible.
Vladimir Putin: Yes, I saw these reports. People there are afraid to wear a kippah in public places, trying to hide their religious identity. This is a problem. But I do not think that it is bad as you say – the worst situation since World War II.
Vyacheslav Kantor: Worse than you might think, Mr President.
Vladimir Putin: Well, maybe.
Vyacheslav Kantor: Anti-Semitism in Europe has grown over the last three years, at 40% per year – I am talking about very extreme cases of anti-Semitism, not small things. For example, more Jews have emigrated from the recently safe nation of France than from Ukraine, which is gripped by an internal conflict.
Why are Jews running from Europe that was recently safe? They are fleeing, as you rightly said, not only because of terrorist attacks against our communities in Toulouse, Brussels, Paris, Copenhagen, and now Marseille, but because of their fear to simply appear in the streets of European cities.
At the upcoming congress, we will discuss the topic of community safety on a practical level for the first time, because European nations can no longer fully guarantee the safety of their Jewish communities.
The active resolution on the issue of countering extremism, racism, anti-Semitism is sacrificed in favour of electoral priorities. The threat is coming not only from terrorists, but from so-called average economic migrants entering a cultural environment that is foreign to them. An example is the Cologne crisis. In this case, lengthy adaptation and education has no alternative. But the migrants from the greater Middle East are creating a new normality for themselves in Europe – this normality is not safe for all others.
Incidentally, the main principle the Jewish communities rely on in building their own security is education and creation of a structure consisting of professionals and volunteers that will bind the Jewish community and law enforcement agencies during pre-crisis and crisis periods. Unfortunately, the British, who have been working for 50 years now on creating such a structure, were right – they have created the so-called gold standard in this area. You know, I was recently quite positively impressed when, at an annual meeting of this special organisation responsible for the security of the Jewish community, Prime Minister of Great Britain David Cameron presented a detailed plan of state financial support to ensure the security of the British Jewish community.
We have always said that Jews are probably the most peaceful, tolerant, law-abiding European nation. But they are the first and easiest target of hatred and violence, not just on the part of the Islamic extremists but radical nationalists as well. In particular, just recently, we received a message from the French National Front with a suggestion to consolidate against migrants. The president of the French Jewish community, one of our most respected presidents and the president of the largest community in Europe, Roger Cukierman, brought this question up at the Congress Executive Committee, and we unanimously resolved that consolidation with the far right is absolutely inadmissible.
During the rich years, liberal democratic Europe coped with the problems of foreign culture communities, but since the crisis broke out, Europe has changed. We see an explosive growth in nationalism, xenophobia and racism, with radical right movements sprouting up like mushrooms. The manifestation of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism is whipping up these sentiments. And this is happening not only in France today; we are seeing this in Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Sweden and Italy. The continent has not outlived the age-old disease: during times of socioeconomic crisis, it is struck again by the virus of anti-Semitism. That is why the Jews who carry the ‘genetic’ memory of the horrors of the 1930s are leaving Europe.
Vladimir Putin: They should come here, to Russia. We are ready to accept them.
Vyacheslav Kantor: This is a fundamentally new idea and we will certainly discuss it at the congress. I hope we will support you.
Vladimir Putin: They left the Soviet Union; now they should come back.
Vyacheslav Kantor: You know, we want to express a truly high assessment of your policy, since the status of Jews in Russia today may be the best in Europe. After all, we are truly talking about the largest community after France.
Indeed, modern European anti-Semitism has no root relation to Jews themselves; this is a manifestation of a terrible systemic disease: Europe cannot handle civilizational, migration, and terrorist challenges. For example, the editor of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper wrote a week ago, “The executioner now decides who is a Jew and who should be executed. We are all Jews now.” That is a quote from the newspaper’s editor.
The European Jews themselves are simply tired of condolences concerning the Holocaust. They are awaiting practical steps from Brussels and national governments. But Europe’s leaders in many nations, for various reasons, often show irresponsibility in terms of practical resolution of problems, including so-called closed ethnic communities whose members often commit violent acts.
In our view, there can be only one criterion of responsibility – does being closed off violate the laws of a nation, or it does not. For comparison, I will say that any Jewish community in the world abides by the primary Talmudic principle – the chief rabbi will not let me exaggerate on this matter: the law of the country, and the responsibility of its leader is about such leader’s ability to apply the national law regardless of the political situation.
A systemic illness of this kind requires a systemic cure. We need immediate joint actions by Russia, the United States and the European Union in fighting terrorism in all its forms. So our congress decisively supports the actions of the Russian Federation against Islamic State. The Russian Air Force is fighting not only against threats to Russia, but defending Europe as well, and we understand this quite well.
In acting decisively against ISIS, Russia seeks to restore peace not only in Syria but also the greater Middle East – to the same degree as in Russia. The threat of nuclear terrorism has now become even more real, things like a “dirty” bomb, the destruction of nuclear facilities or isotopes in medical centres, and so on. Islamic State already controls laboratories at the University of Mosul in Iraq, where 40 kg of uranium compounds were seized. According to some assessments, this is enough to build a “dirty” bomb.
Summing up all this, I would like to draw your attention to the following initiatives. With regard to anti-Semitism: supporting the legal recognition of anti-Semitism as a criminal offence; supporting efforts and measures to ensure security for Jewish organisations; supporting the development of special on-going educational programmes for preschools, schools and universities, instilling the basics of safe tolerance in students.
With regard to global terrorism, including nuclear terrorism: the need for the leaders of Russia, the US, major states in Europe and throughout the world to recognise that countering nuclear terrorism is an important priority in ensuring international security; urgently reviving and strengthening cooperation along all previously adopted initiatives and UN Security Council resolutions on nuclear terrorism; calling a special session of the UN General Assembly on terrorism (I would consider it highly important to create a seventh UN main committee on this matter, specialising on the issue); ensuring maximum cooperation between special services and operational agencies to identify and prevent attempts to seize nuclear materials and stage nuclear attacks.
But without a high level of political cooperation, which you always insist on, this urgent global project will be very vulnerable. We all very much need for Russia to play an important role in the coalition to counter global terrorism and anti-Semitism.
Mr President, I often think about why the memory of the Holocaust has not become a vaccine against the anti-Semitism that destroys any nation. We understand that anti-Semitism is the start of the trampling of common basic values, traditions, family, property and life itself. And that is why the memory alone is not enough – we need unity, since unity is power.
We sincerely thank you for the fact that you have always been, remain, and I hope, will always be, a friend of the Jewish people.