European Jewish Congress president Viatcheslav Moshe Kantor paid a visit to Bulgaria to attend the 100th anniversary of the consecration of the Sofia synagogue. Mr. Kantor spoke for Focus News Agency about tolerance, about the lessons from the Second World War and nuclear proliferation disarmament.
FOCUS: Let’s start with the reason for your visit to Sofia – the hundredth anniversary of Sofia synagogue consecration. What message is this celebration intended to send out?
Viatcheslav Kantor: This is the fundamental question. Bulgaria is one of the youngest EU members but in certain aspects like culture, Bulgaria excels many EU countries. One of the key issues Bulgaria has greatly contributed to is the culture of tolerance. There is no other capital city in the European Union where a synagogue, a mosque and Christian temples co-exist in peace. Of course one may call it architecture but it is also a reflection of the spirit of tolerance in the country. Sofia synagogue is 100 years old. The synagogue that was once launched by a Bulgarian monarch is now being restored with the full support of a government following not the socialist but the capitalist way of development. Regimes change but the spirit of tolerance in Bulgaria remains strong. This is a great achievement, a great heritage that is difficult to ponder.
FOCUS: 1 September marked 70 years from the outbreak of the Second World War. What should never be forgotten? What lessons did the war teach humanity?
Viatcheslav Kantor: People perceive the nature of things when disaster strikes. People somehow start to see the future and to understand what is important and what is not. Unfortunately this does not last long enough and then those lessons remain only in history books. There are two types of values – spiritual and material. Following catastrophes spiritual values prevail but only to yield later to material values. Due to the complexes of the First World War the world did not recognize the danger ahead. Thus the Nazi regime and the Holocaust took place. At that time some wrong culture of tolerance prevailed in Europe and in the world as a whole – tolerance to a criminal regime. Tolerance is a subtle art that needs to be carefully introduced into society. Its development must be well defined and the limits of such development must be set.
Currently we see a similar situation by EU countries to Iran’s nuclear armament. Why is this? Do you think no one perceives the danger there? Of course, a long time has passed since the last disaster, 70 years from the start of the Second World War and once again spiritual values have succumbed to material values. This is the same lesson. Europe is cooperating with Iran, 6,000 European companies are cooperating daily with Iran and the biggest number is that of German companies. This is the same Germany that has overlooked the lessons of the First and the Second world wars.
FOCUS: The word has been worrying about Iran’s nuclear program for several years now. How is this matter going to be solved? Could there be another war? And if so, what would be the consequences?
Viatcheslav Kantor: All sanctions imposed so far have been but meaningless noise to Iran. The UN has passed several absolutely strict resolutions that are not being complied with. Economic sanctions must give way to harsher measures including military sanctions for violators in compliance with the legal regulations of the UN. But what is it that hinders us – unawareness of history’s lessons.
Is there any danger of a new war – no doubt there is such danger. The thing is that Iran will not strike first as that would expose it to a counter strike. I think the Iranian government’s scenario is different. What is Iran aspiring to – regional dominance in the Near East through a policy of threatening. This policy of threatening concerns Europe, the USA, other countries. How come the Iranian government is keeping all in fear? They have a design for a nuclear head, they probably have enough material for one or two nuclear bombs acquired on the black market – about 20 kilos of enriched uranium but they do not have the technology to implement mass production of nuclear weapons. The latter goal requires highly developed technological and industrial potential. What they have is something more dangerous, which remains outside the vision of international community. Iran has an absolutely vertically integrated terrorist organization – Hezbollah. Hezbollah is not only present in Lebanon. It is an organization with very serious ambitions. But Hezbollah does not exist by itself. It is a child, a financial product of Iran and this is why I consider the current Iranian government is no different than the criminals convicted in Nurnberg. These are international criminals, who have established a state-run terrorist organization threatening the world. Should we wait for them to strike first? The task of the Jewish organizations is to state our vision. The Diaspora everywhere must speak about threats – common threats exposing not just Jews but all people.
FOCUS: Bulgaria saved its Jews during the Second World War and Bulgarians are tolerant people but even here anti-Semitism and xenophobia continue to cause serious problems. What is your idea about the ways in which any society should handle these problems?
Viatcheslav Kantor: The EU could undertake a fundamental decision to establish a university of tolerance with branches in all EU capitals. This is not like political economy, it is not scientific communism, this is not history of the communist party but history of tolerance, the lessons of tolerance, the limits of tolerance. Such science, as it needs to be a science, will cover all human activities starting from legislation and all the way to justice administration and culture. It must cover all aspects of humanity. Then it will become an unconditional good and a strong basis for economic prosperity of every country.
FOCUS: Representatives of the Jewish community in Bulgaria refer to the phenomenon of “virtual anti-Semitism” – i.e. people, who do not know any Jews and are not acquainted with the Jewish culture but have read something in the internet and have established negative attitudes. What is the reason for this?
Viatcheslav Kantor: Anti-Semitism is economically reasoned. The dangerous type of anti-Semitism is the fundamental state-promoted anti-Semitism and not the social-trivial type. The latter type is related to hatred to anything different while fundamental state-promoted anti-Semitism always has its economic reasons.
There are different political parties in Bulgaria and some of them employ anti-Semitic ideology. If there were no Jews it would be convenient to make up some as the image of the enemy always unites.
Currently the German position on Iran is related to the upcoming election. The German government heeds to the Islamic street and the Neo-Nazi street as the election is pending. This is not about moral principles, this is about how to win another term of office and behind all are economic interests as we all know that politics is epitome of economic interests.
FOCUS: You are the founder of the MAGMA Museum for modern art. Is art the way to tolerance?
Viatcheslav Kantor: 10 years ago the idea occurred to collect some very Jewish visual stuff, very Jewish, very Russian and very remarkable. So I decided to make together with some assistants a list of the most prominent Jews of the 20th century in the field of visual art. The first name that comes to mind is Marc Chagall, but there are others like Leon Bakst, Sonia Delaunay, Chaim Soutine, Alexander Tischler, Mark Rothko. These names talk not only to experts but to the broad public in France, the UK, America. While all of these artists came from Eastern Europe. So I asked myself whether their success was not proof for the productiveness of the tolerant approach. And I came to the conclusion that was so because the atmosphere of tolerance helped them deal with the competitive environment and unfold their talent. Competition stimulated them but it was not so harsh as to suppress their development all together. Could anything like the “Berlin school” spring to life at the star of the century? No. As early as the 1920s there reigned the atmosphere of intolerance already. While in neighbouring France the Paris school emerged to give a powerful conceptual impetus to a number of artistic styles.
Did the world gain anything from this? No doubt it did. There is the idea that in terms of artistic styles and new dimensions the 20th century gave humanity more than all the previous history of mankind. This is how revolutionary the 20th century was and the atmosphere of tolerance in those countries played a crucial part for the development of those artistic ideas and concepts. What we at the European Jewish Congress do is to provide all sorts of support for the fundament of tolerance and to enhance this fundament in European culture.