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Behind the Headlines: Dinitz Controversy Highlights the Dual Nature of Jewish Agency

The controversy now swirling around Simcha Dinitz has served to highlight the tensions inherent in the hybrid organization he chairs, the Jewish Agency for Israel.

The Jewish Agency is the largest single recipient of American Jewish philanthropy.

It is also the embodiment of political Zionism, the Diaspora community’s link to the nation-building enterprises largely undertaken now by the Israeli government.

Depending on one’s perspective, Simcha Dinitz is either a Jewish organizational professional, accountable to one set of standards, or an Israeli politician, answerable to a very different set.

The Dinitz affair started with reports last winter that he misused the Jewish Agency’s credit cards. Dinitz has admitted making personal purchases on the cards and not repaying $13,793 worth of charges until the bills were brought to his attention in December 1992.

Last week Dinitz was questioned by Israeli police, who are investigating whether any criminal laws were violated.

He has heatedly denied that anything other than an oversight was involved.

Dinitz and his supporters in both Israel and the United States have argued that a man is innocent until proven guilty.

They noted the findings of the Jewish Agency legal adviser that there was no wrongful intent in Dinitz’s failing to reimburse the agency for personal expenditures on the agency credit card.

Unless the ongoing police investigation determines that Dinitz has indeed broken the law, there should be no consideration of his leaving the post, these supporters say.

“The Israelis have a policy, that when there’s an investigation, whether of a government person or a semi-official individual, the person serves until the investigation is completed and there is some adjudication,” said Seymour Reich, president of the American Zionist Movement.

“If the Israeli process permits an individual to serve, then Simcha should not be maligned or dumped on, and the American leaders should respect the Israeli system.”

DERI STILL IN OFFICE

Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of the Shas party has long been at the center of a growing scandal. But even the prospect of imminent indictment on corruption charges has not led him to resign his post.

But in fact, the Israeli and American systems may not be all that different.

In America, William Sessions refused loud public calls to step down as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the face of charges that he had abused the privileges of his office. He was finally fired by President Clinton.

And in Israel, both Police Minister Moshe Shahal and the Ma’ariv newspaper have called for Dinitz to step down.

But there is a clear difference in how the Jewish Agency, and Simcha Dinitz’s position, appear from the Israeli and American perspectives.

In Israel, the Jewish Agency is considered a quasi-governmental body. Its salaries are pegged to those of Cabinet officials, its actions are coordinated with the state, and its leaders come from the ranks of the Israeli political parties in proportion to their strength in the World Zionist Congress.

Dinitz is a former ambassador to Washington and member of Knesset.

But for most Americans Jews, who are collectively expected to contribute more than half of the Jewish Agency’s $511 million 1993 budget, the politics is irrelevant.

Their main concern is that their money be spent wisely and prudently.

As far as those directly supervising the transfer of money are concerned, Simcha Dinitz is simply the head of a beneficiary agency.

And the standard in American Jewish life is that if someone in such a position is discovered in a position of impropriety, he leaves — quietly, quickly and with a generous severance package.

‘WE’D BE GONE BY THE AFTERNOON’

“If we had been charging stuff on the company credit card for five years, and suddenly it was discovered we hadn’t been paying it off, we’d be gone by the afternoon,” said one federation director, expressing a common sentiment.

“There are literally dozens of examples of federation staff, or rabbis, or cantors, who have resigned. And therefore there hasn’t been any acknowledgement that there’s been a problem,” said another professional. “You work out a settlement package, and they’re gone.”

From this view, innocence is no defense.

The bottom line, said one local federation lay leader, is “we can’t afford it. (Dinitz is) clearly guilty of extremely poor judgment, failure to exercise the proper kind of responsibility in overseeing expenditures of the Jewish Agency, and when we’re trying to raise money from people on the street, you can’t have somebody you lost confidence in at the helm.”

Officially, the Jewish Agency’s board of governors has named a committee — composed largely of the leaders of the American fund-raising organizations — to monitor the effects of the Dinitz scandal on the fund-raising campaign.

The committee will also examine a report scheduled to be prepared by the end of July by Philadelphia Judge Abraham Gafni, a member of the Jewish Agency Assembly, and to reach a decision by the end of August.

Unofficially, those on the fund-raising side say they have received private assurances that Dinitz will be gone by the end of August.

No matter what one’s perspective on the Jewish Agency, however, longtime observers say that Dinitz’s fate will ultimately be determined by the vagaries of Israeli politics.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin urged in a statement that Dinitz not be prematurely judged.

The statement, say some observers, underscores the fact that at least so far, the Labor Party has no clear candidate to succeed Dinitz.

Rabin is supporting Dinitz, a Labor Party member, for the sake of the party, “because otherwise Likud would take over” the Jewish Agency, according to one observer.

While the agency bylaws are not clear about succession — and make no provisions for removing the chairman of the Executive — it appears that pending the election of a new chairman, the highest-ranking agency post is that of treasurer.

The treasurer slot is currently filled by a Likudnik, Hanan Ben Yehudah.

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