International chair Leonid Nevzlin’s speech at the annual GA conference- November 9, 2009
November 9, 2009, Washington DC
GA International Chair Leonid Nevzlin’s speech earned him a standing ovation by the collected leadership of the American Jewish federations.
I stand here today as the International Chair of the 2009 General Assembly of The Jewish Federations of North America – someone born and raised in Moscow, Russia: living in Herzliyah and a proud citizen of Israel and speaking – or attempting to speak in English in Washington, DC. What could be a greater statement of Jewish Peoplehood than connecting these dots? What could lead to more confusion about one’s identity than asking a Jew one simple question: where are you from? I say that because there was a time, not so long ago, when I could not have imagined ever standing here in this place, in this country, only blocks from the decision-making capital of the world, with this responsibility. Now, as I begin my remarks, I would like to acknowledge all of you: Mr. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyiahu, Chariman of the Jewish Agency, Mr. Sharansky, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Minister of Diaspora Affairs Mr. Yuli Edelstein, Chairman Joe Kanfer, Chair of the Executive Committee of The Jewish Federations Kathy Manning, Senator Joe Lieberman, distinguished guests, friends, members of my worldwide Jewish family. And because this is such a special occasion for me, I would like to make my remarks a little more personal than usual. Through my personal story, I believe I can address the pressing global reasons that we are all here today.
I cared little about my personal Jewish identity until the collapse of the Soviet Union in Gorbachev’s day. There were many others who started their Jewish search earlier than I did, but my first ten years in business simply did not afford me the time. We spent all day, every day, 24/7 making money and growing our business. No doubt, many of you are familiar with this challenge. Over just couple of years money got huge. By 1997, my partners and I owned Yukos oil company – the largest private enterprise in the former Soviet Union and the first truly western, transparent, modern free-enterprise model of a company in Russia. A few Jews like me in charge of an oil company – imagine that It was a dream.
In my role as a senior manager I focused on social and public projects, trying to leverage our influence to do good in a world that had suffered. My dear friend and partner Mikhail Khodorkovsky and I became both donors to and leaders of several important non-profit projects. I need to share the scale of such undertakings with you which began, naturally, with the responsibilities we had for our own staff.
Yukos, our company, had about 150,000 workers. Together with their families, we felt responsible for the lives of more that half a million people. We made sure that the company budget included not only the social benefits for our workers but also the social, educational and health needs for the towns and cities where the branches of the company were based, including support for hospitals, schools, kindergardens and universities. I had the privilege and sometimes the headache of managing this vast network of people and projects. It was how I learned to give back for all the success that I experienced in my business.
We didn’t only oversee what happened to our company and its employees; we began dozens of new social justice initiatives all over Russia. You must understand, my friends, that the Former Soviet Union had virtually no infrastructure to handle new development on this scale. We had to build new structures and organizations by ourselves. We financed it. We were the think tank behind it. We were trying to build a totally new liberal society. It was not easy but we felt it as a repsonsbility.
In terms of Jewish life, there were only a few Jewish communal organizations operating in Russia at the time. As it is common in a country that is not very pluralistic or tolerant, our company could not support Jewish organizations. It was uncomfortable enough that a large number of our shareholders and senior management was Jewish. If we had gotten more involved with Jewish non-profits we would have been called the Jewish oil company. So we kept a Jewish low-profile in our public work.
In 1997, everything changed for me. I had a meeting with two rabbis who asked me, as a wealthy philanthropist, to support a much larger Jewish initiative. They wanted to change Jewish life in Russia dramatically. They were prepared to bring rabbis to dozens of Russian regions, to reconstruct synagogues, to build community centers and to develop Jewish life for the Russians who remained. At that point, I was in the dark. That day, I got an education. The challenge and the scale of the idea was nothing sort of inspiring.
So I said yes. I agreed to take on this new challenge. In the days that followed I suddenly became the lay leader for KEROR – the United Jewish Communities of Russia – Russia’s UJC if you pardon the allusion. The name in Russia didn’t do any better than here, by the way…
I’m surprised they didn’t make me a rabbi. Only a few days later, I was in New York, speaking with Mr. Reichman from Canada, convincing him to match my commitment which he did.
From that time onward, I have always been deeply engaged in Jewish philanthropy. My commitment to non-profit work never stopped, but I had a realization that more Jews need to have. We can give to the world but we have to take care of our own first because we are the only ones who can and will. I was so inspired by my work with Jewish organizations that in 2000 I was elected as the head of the Russian Jewish Congress. In 2001, I was elected to the Russian Senate as deputy chair of the International Relations Committee overseeing Israel and the Middle East. Let me tell you a secret though some of you may have had a similar experience: If you show even a little enthusiasm for anything, you get elected to a position.
Since then my activities on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people have become a personal priority in my professional life.
In 2003, I made aliya. It was time for me to join my people in our homeland. And now, in addition to the many Jewish projects I created in Russia, we have a branch of Keren Hayesod and the board of friends for Hebrew University. My parents joined me in Israel and I became a grandfather to Jacob and a father to Dana in Israel.
Some of this story does not have a happy ending. Once I made aliyah I could not go back to visit my friends in the FSU. The dream of Yukos had become a nightmare in the best traditions of Russian tragedies. My friend Mikhail Khodorkovsky was falsely accused and imprisoned by Russian Czar Putin.
My partners were arrested and Yukos, the best of Russian companies, was stolen by the government. Something that I helped build from scratch is no longer the powerhouse it once was. Despite my understandable anger at the Russian government, I continued to support Jewish projects in Russia until 2007. Gradually, the center of my philanthropy moved to Israel.
I am here today – a free man engaged and committed to the Jewish People and Jewish philanthropy BECAUSE of my Jewish self-discovery. My friend Khodorkovsky never came to terms with his Jewish identity and that’s one reason that Putin and his henchmen have gotten and many others him behind the barbed wire of the modern day GULAG.
Unlike some Jews – like Mr. Goldstone for instance – whose Jewish identity is ridden with conflict, guilt and shame, I am very proud of my Jewishnes, of belonging to the worldwide People.
I am proud of having made the free choice – and it IS a free choice these days – to be a Jew and to live and Israel – the Jewish homeland.
For a free human being there is no conflict between a strong commitment to Jewish identity and to the universal human values. In fact – as Natan Sharansky has written – a strong Jewish identity makes it possible to be a humanist and a defender of democracy.
I started my Jewish philanthropy in Israel by establishing a research center together with Hebrew University which specializes in Eastern European Jewish studies. I have stayed good friends with Keren Hayesod who appointed me to the Board of the Jewish Agency for Israel. I am proud to be the first Russian speaking lay leader for the last few years on this board. Recently, I’ve been joined by Natan Sharansky, who also speaks a little Russian.
My daughter Irina runs the NADAV Foundation, and as a family, we are involved in education, policy planning, research projects and investing in start-ups that are focused on Jewish peoplehood. In business I learned early on that wise people set goals which they achieve through projects. I, on the other hand, start projects which give me the ideas that then develop into goals. We Russians can act counter-intuitively but it’s worked for me so far.
In that spirit, Natan and Prime Minister Sharon asked me to undertake a new initiative: to save the Diaspora Museum (Beit Hatfutsot). This undertaking has given me a new perspective and opened my eyes to a challenge. How do we define Jewish peoplehood? It is getting harder to articulate what it means to have a Jewish identity, both as individuals and as a collective. And this is not only a problem for the Diaspora, where I spent 44 years, but also surprisingly in Israel. Jewish identity cannot be taken for granted, not in New York, not in Moscow and not in Tel-Aviv.
And that brings me full circle to what we are all doing here today at this important GA in the capital of the United States. I feel that a failure to articulate a meaningful, global Jewish identity is the biggest threat currently facing the Jewish people. I want to see our people united, joined by a global destiny and mission, members of a large, embracing family, content to be a small people but one that is influential and critical for world civilization. We are all here today because UJC, no pardon me – The Jewish Federations of North America had created a remarkable network with JAFI where we can have global conversations about identity, where we can imagine tomorrow and we can create a stronger Jewish future. When we do — we can deal with the likes of the kind of lies the goldstones of the world try to perpetrate in the spirit of blood libels and “elders of Zion” lies and forgeries.
I think in this city they are fond of the expression “yes we can.”
But this will take work, the work that we are here to do today. Do not let this GA be simply a place to shmooze and catch up with friends and colleagues. We have a larger agenda to address. We must be the think-tank that creates a vision of Jewish people for this century.
To get to that message, why did I need to give you my personal history?. I offer this personal introduction to give you an insight into who stands before you and to what it means to start small and to dream big. We are here to create a global vision for the Jewish community that is more ambitious and comprehensive than anything we’ve ever dreamed before. Who could have imagined that a Jew would one day run one of the biggest oil companies in the FSU? I could never have imagined that I would help create a stronger Jewish life in Russia and then make aliyah myself. I’ve lived in Israel for more then 6 years. Four generations of my family are now living in Israel. This year I turned fifty, and my wife gave me the best present you could imagine: a daughter Dana. Who knows what she’ll give me next year?
My own story, like the stories of so many Jews through so many centuries, feels impossible. We Jews are very good at living impossible lives. And so I leave you with this question. What do you need to do to make Jewish life impossibly better for the world today? Each of us must ask this question while we dream big dreams about the Jewish future and we work impossibly hard to make them into realities. My life is just another impossible Jewish story. It is part of the narrative of Jewish peoplehood. It is our collective story, and it is a story we believe in. It is the Hatikva. It is the State of Israel. It is the vastness and richness of Jewish life in the Diaspora. It is the magnificent story of our people. We are all here to become master story –tellers of an impossible dream that we, as a people, have created. Thank you.
And now it is my honor and privilege to introduce the leader of my country and of the Jewish People – my friend Benjamin Netanyahu.