Chairman of the EAJC Program Committee Josef Zissels
Josef Zissels: “We continue to implement our traditional programs as much as possible”
07.02.2018, Communities of Eurasia
The editors of the jewseurasia.org website have approached the Chairman of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress (EAJC) Program Committee, one of the Congress founders, Josef Zissels to ask for his comments on the current situation within the EAJC. Half a year ago, the EAJC went through heavy restructuring that included new leadership and new governing bodies.
Dear Josef Samoilovich, the idea of the EAJC has been around since 1992, a whopping 25 years ago. At first, the Congress was a sort of “bodiless” concept, something to integrate post-Soviet Jewry into the global Diaspora. This union of Jewish communities from post-Soviet countries, as well as small Eastern European communities and communities from the Asian and Pacific region was supposed to give a proper voice to the Jews of the region, who had long been “in the shadow” of the larger Diaspora centers: North America first and foremost, but Western Europe to some extent as well. The EAJC was established officially ten years later, in 2002. The Congress was founded by the largest communities of the region: Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine. When Alexander Antonovich Mashkevich took the mantle of president (he is now the EAJC’s Honorary President), the organization began to be truly active. Its projects were many and varied: conferences and seminars, summer camps for childen and teenagers, diplomatic missions, research and publishing projects, all too numerous to list here. Eighteen years have passed since that time. You were there at the inception of the Congress. How would you evaluate the road that it has travelled thus far? What has become the main mission of the Congress? Looking back, can you say what were the Congress’s greatest achievements, and what dreams of twenty-five years ago have remained unfulfilled?
Our main achievement was the creation of a large-scale Jewish group in this ill-defined, amorphous part of the world. Our group was different from other similar structures because it provided a high level of inter-community cooperation and had a slew of unique community projects. We could not simply copy continental Jewish communities in the West, as we were in a different area of the Jewish world. Unlike in Europe and in the American continental divisions of the World Jewish Congress, which had strong communities and weak political backers, we had weak ethnic communities but a strong - or, better said, very active - group of political backers.
I believe that it is certainly possible for an existing organization to back the community. However, should it take upon itself the right to represent local communities, it is then bound to continually act on their behalf, doing much and more on a regular basis. This should not be restricted to the primitive level of distributing money or packages, as if pandering to the electorate in a quasi-democratic society. Instead, the organization must organize projects and programs, actively enriching the community.
We had achieved this goal as early as 2006. Our next task was to choose a new strategic goal that we could strive towards without scaling down our activity on this continent. We discussed several options, but in the end we chose none of them. It is hardly surprising, then, that without such an overarching goal we did not develop any further. As we were simply repeating what we already knew, we became less interesting - and first and foremost to Maskhevich himself.
It is hardly a secret that in recent years, after Alexander Maskevich resigned as the Congress’s head, the organization went through a lengthy period of instability. Presidents came and went. Half a year ago, the leadership of the Congress underwent significant change yet again. Mikhail Mikhailovich Mirilashvili was elected as the new President. Moreover, the organization had changed its structure as new governing bodies were installed. Why did the Congress need to be “reloaded”?
I believe that the change of leadership was forced. It was conducted in far too much unjustified haste, which blocked a detailed discussion of the strategic and tactical goals for the organization that was being reloaded. The changes were requested by the presidential candidate, and we were not against them. However, having seriously changed the structure of our charter and having introduced new governing elements, we now lack true understanding of what actually happened.
The truth of the matter is that since the last Extraordinary General Assembly, which was half a year ago, these new governing bodies have yet to do any work. And it seems like they never wiill. We, the cofounders of the Congress, have no information about anything significant at all happening in the Congress. It was understandable that we were less active earlier: we had no stable source of financing. But this particular crisis would seem to have been solved, as the new president has signficant financial resources at his disposal. However, we still do not see any sort of aspiration for systematic work.
Did you have an idea of the Congress’s further activity ready before the “reload”? Which ideas were to become central, which direction of activity could be the most prominent? Were these matters discussed with the new president, and if so, did you reach any sort of understanding?
As I said, nothing was really discussed. We needed to overcome the financial crisis, restore our old level of activity and begin a search for new ideas. But none of these things have come to pass.
How would you evaulate the last half a year of the Congress’s activity? Did any of the hopes that you were placing on the reorganization of the Congress come to fruition?
I think it is clear from the answers given above that over the last half year our expectations have not been fulfilled, and that there does not seem to be any realistic chance for them being fulfilled in the future. A weak new trend is the potential intent to transform the Congress into something like a grant-giving organization, providing support and financial aid to different consumers. This is hardly surprising: Mikhail Mirilashvili had earlier been renowned for his philanthropic activity. However, there is a plethora of foundations dedicated to such tasks. The problem of all these organizations is that they lack any significant political clout in the Jewish world. The strength of large organizations that can back a community politically, like ours, lies first and foremost in their infrastructure, their access to professionals, their programs and projects. As a result, such organizations are capable of rising up to rather powerful challenges. Unfortunately, regular foundations lack these capabilities.
How do you see the Congress’s short-term and mid-range perspectives? What are the problems EAJC is facing today and their possible solutions?
To see the perspectives of any kind of movement one must observe clear and consistent tendencies in the movement’s development and then extrapolate on those tendencies. At this moment I cannot say that I am observing anything I could extrapolate from. Even if the Congress is active, all of this activity is conducted outside of our offices, without involving our professionals, and, importantly, in an absolutely non-transparent fashion, which is quite strange for a large NGO. For this reason it is difficult to speak of tendencies.
We are continuing our traditional activities - that is, our known programs and projects - as much as we are able to. At the moment, this means we are implementing them at a slightly reduced pace. We could rebuild them up to full capacity, but as they are not currently being financed, this is out of the question for now.
Despite the reduced activity of the EAJC and the absence of a clear strategy of meaningful program activity, can we approximate the general worldview, political and ideological preferences of the new Congress leaders? One important marker would have been the Memorandum of Cooperation with the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FCJR) signed by EAJC President Mikhail Mirilashvili and Board Chairman Aron Frenkel. The text of the Memorandum has not been published openly, but FJCR President Aleksandr Boroda has gone on record saying that the Federation and the Congress have united against “the rewriting of history” and for the battle with “neo-Nazism and collaborationism.” Many in Russia and especially beyond its borders have been concerned both by the fact that such a Memorandum was signed in the first place, as it gives the FJCR a preferential place in the Jewish world (earlier, the EAJC had not once signed similar documents with any national level Jewish organization in the countries whose communities are part of the EAJC), and by the rhetoric used in the process. Can you comment on these processes?
You have rightly noted that neither the text of the Memorandum or of any other document has been published, and we are thus not familiar with it. This is somewhat strange, as we have never prepared any document in secret from the Presidium and the General Council over all of the years of the EAJC’s activity. For example, we signed an agreement on strategic cooperation between the Congress and the American Jewish Committee. That agreement was discussed for over three months within a rather large circle of persons before it was signed.
We had been given fragmentary bits and pieces of information that something is in the works with FJCR, but we had no idea what. It is interesting that the last time FJCR participated in anything was in the late 1990s, in the Russian Jewish Congress, when Vladimir Gusinsky was in power. After this, the FJCR had not been part of any sort of other organization and, to the best of my knowledge, signed no important agreements with anyone.
I am not as much interested in the text of the aforementioned Memorandum as in certain long-term consequences that might stem from this collaboration.
Mikhail Mirilashvili has not only been friends with Rabbi Berl Lazar for many years, but has been supporting the FJCR financially for many years, at a much larger scale than the entire budget of the Congress. So I do not think that the heart of the matter lies in the fact that Mikhail Mirilashvili is continuing his charity work in this direction.
Concerning the statements made by Aleksandr Boroda, it’s also not certain that this quote is connected to the Memorandum in any way and if it is, then how. But knowing Aleksandr and his proximity to the Kremlin - if memory serves, he is particularly close to Vladislav Surkov - one could imagine that Boroda would almost always mention the fight against rewriting history in his public speeches. Perhaps the Memorandum will finally serve as a means of transitioning from empty words to deeds in this respect for him, particularly in Russia, where the FJCR is active. There was a reason the USSR used to be called “the country with an unpredictable past.”
Thank you for this honest conversation.
Interview by Vyacheslav Likhachev