World Sephardi Federation Adopts New Structure and New Directions

Much of the discussion at a three-day gathering of the World Sephardi Federation here this week focused on a controversial plan to restructure the hierarchy of the international organization.

The plan nearly prompted a walkout by the Israeli delegation to the federation’s third international congress. But that was averted in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, when the federation agreed to amend the reorganization plan to include more Israeli representation in the policymaking echelons of the world organization.

World Sephardi Federation President Nessim Gaon of Geneva considers the restructuring to be a cornerstone of the congress, held Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 at the Laromme Hotel here. But it appears far more public enthusiasm was generated by an offer Gaon made at the official opening of the congress Monday night.

Speaking to 400 delegates form 18 countries, Gaon declared that the federation is prepared to send an Arabic-speaking delegation to Amman, Jordan; Rabat, Morocco; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; or anywhere else to seek common understanding as the basis for diplomatic negotiations between Israel and the Arab world.

UNDERSTANDING OF ARAB CULTURES

In his view, the common language, the experience of living among Arabs and the understanding that Sephardim have of Arab cultures can help not only in the eventual peace negotiations, but also in the vital talk of building acceptance of Israel.

He added that the federation has no desire to circumvent Israeli government, but he noted, too, that no one has made a serious effort to make peace since the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat came here, almost exactly 10 years ago, in 1977.

On Wednesday night, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres responded favorably to Gaon’s offer to utilize delegations of Jews of Mideast origin to open channels of dialogue with Israel’s Arab neighbors. The Sephardim can serve as a gesher (bridge) and as a shofar for peace, Peres told the federation delegates.

His reaction, coming at the closing of the congress, was in marked contrast to that of Premier Yitzhak Shamir, who said nothing of the idea during his remarks to the congress Monday night, which immediately followed Gaon’s opening speech. In fact, a federation leader seated near Shamir during Gaon’s speech said the premier was stewing.

MENTION OF LONDON MEETING

In his remarks, delivered in rhythmic English, Peres expressed hope for peace, pointing to three windows of opportunity created by an agreement reached with Jordan’s King Hussein in London earlier this year, the recent Arab summit meeting in Amman and the two superpowers’ declared intention to focus on regional issues during the summit meetings next week between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

It was the foreign minister’s first public acknowledgement of his secret meeting in London with Hussein. That is the meeting at which the two leaders reportedly agreed to seek an international peace conference that would lead to direct negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Shamir has consistently opposed the idea of Israeli participation in an international conference, fearing that Israel would be outnumbered in such a forum and forced to make compromises against its best interests.

PRAISE FOR SEPHARDI ADVANCES

The prime minister chose to focus on other issues in his speech to the Sephardi delegates Monday night. He praised the Sephardim for their socioeconomic and political advances in Israel.

Shamir also praised Jewish unity as a guarantor of Israeli success and noted, on the other hand, that Arab unity, such as that displayed at the Arab summit meeting in Amman last month, spelled trouble for Israel.

Gaon expressed concern about Jewish disunity at a news conference preceding the congress at Ben-Gurion airport Sunday night. He said the federation would take strong action to prevent Sephardic children from falling prey to religious fanaticism.

Non-Sephardic, ultra-Orthodox yeshivas in Israel, he and other leaders charged, have been luring impoverished Sephardic boys with promises of education, room and board, and in effect are turning them against their families.

Sephardim are religiously observant, yet tolerant, making them an easy mark for extremists, Gaon said. Of the world’s estimated 13 million Jews, about 3 million are Sephardim, and about half of them live in Israel.

Nevertheless, he lamented, Sephardic culture has waned in Israel in the last generation because the recent Sephardic immigrants came without their teachers. They could not have continuity or culture.

NEW DIRECTIONS

Renewal of pride in Sephardic culture was one of several new directions urged by Gaon and other leaders during the congress. Others were increased assistance to Sephardim in Israel, promotion of religious moderation and improved Sephardic education in the diaspora.

The congress ratified only one major resolution: the reconstitution of the federation presidium, the top policy-making board, to include more diaspora members and fewer Israelis — but that only after a protracted battle. The Israeli Sephardic Federation had threatened to pull out of the world body if Israeli representation on the reconstituted presidium was not increased from 10 of 31 seats. They finally got 14 of 35 seats.

At Gaon’s suggestion, the congress agreed to allow the presidium to take action Thursday on the other resolutions.

These included the opening and eventual construction of Sephardi House here, which will coordinate federation programming in Israel; expansion of current scholarship and bar mitzvah programs; and creation of a council of mayors from Israel’s development towns, which are heavily Sephardi.

On Tuesday, the world federation announced the establishment of scholarship funds in the names of former Premier Menachem Begin and the late Pinchas Sapir, former Israeli finance minister.

Begin was premier in 1978, when Project Renewal, the diaspora-Israel effort to improve Israel’s development towns, was established. Sapir was honored for his compassionate partnership.

NEXT STORY