PRAGUE (Dec. 19)
Members of the Prague Jewish Community have voted to oust their chairman and governing board — but the chairman is refusing to leave, saying the decision is not valid according to community by-laws. So far, Tomas Jelinek is staying put at his office in the heart of Prague’s historic Jewish quarter.
Just 230 members of the 1,600-strong community cast ballots Sunday at an assembly attended only by Jelinek opponents. The voters, part of a group called the Platform for a Community for All, formed soon after Jelinek was re-elected in April 2004.
Sunday’s vote confirmed a Nov. 7 vote to oust Jelinek.
Jelinek was elected on a mandate to create greater transparency and democracy in the community, as well as a promise to make the community more attractive to non-Orthodox Jews.
His opponents, many of whom have ties to the previous leadership, have objected to several of his steps, including the sacking of Prague Chief Rabbi Karel Sidon and the distribution of community members’ names and e-mail addresses to a public relations agency.
The Platform already has met to appoint a temporary community manager, and is seeking early elections for a new community board.
But Petr Halva, head of the community’s election oversight committee, says Sunday’s vote was void because the opposition meeting was unofficial and lacked proper supervision.
Instead, Halva authorized a mail-in ballot to community members, asking them to vote on whether to accept or reject the community leadership. Results of that ballot will be announced Dec. 21.
Jelinek backed the move, noting that many of his supporters are “old and infirm. They cannot be expected to show up at an assembly to vote.”
Halva said a mail-in vote also was necessary to avoid sanctioning a meeting where name-calling, whistling and stomping would rule the day, as allegedly occurred at the Nov. 7 assembly where his opponents first voted to oust Jelinek.
Irena Pavlaskova, a board member and close Jelinek ally, said his opponents disgraced the entire community at the November assembly by yelling things at fellow community members such as, “You should have stayed in Terezin,” a reference to an infamous Nazi transit camp northwest of Prague.
Jakob Roth, spokesman for the Platform, said his group would ignore the results of the mail-in ballot because community regulations do not allow for absentee balloting. He claimed Jelinek and his supporters were controlling the balloting to such an extent that he was wary of fraud, something Halva called absurd.
Roth called Jelinek’s dismissal of Sunday’s vote a tactic “that would also be used by the Czechoslovak Communist Party to control outcomes.”
Asked what came next, he replied, “I have no idea. But I think the best thing for the community would be to do without a chairman. What is needed instead is an administrator who takes direction from the board and the community, not the other way around.”
Halva, however, says that if the Platform doesn’t agree with the absentee vote, it should bring its case to the courts.
The new manager chosen by the Platform, Charles Wiener, who lives in Switzerland, said he had supported much of Jelinek’s program and agreed with Jelinek’s criticism that the community previously had been too closed to non-Orthodox members and to the influence of anyone not directly associated with the leadership that ran the community in the 1990s.
“But the way Jelinek did things was simply too offensive for many members,” Wiener said. “He wanted to push through his ideas by any means possible.”
Jelinek responded that criticism of his style was a ruse to hide what he claimed were Platform members’ real intentions — to block any reform initiative that Jelinek introduced.
“I won the elections last April and the old guard just can’t stand it and is trying anything possible to ruin me, which in turn is disgracing the community,” he said. “It’s very unfortunate.”
Whatever the outcome, community members on both sides agree that the rift might take years to heal.
“We are perhaps the wealthiest Jewish community in Europe because of all the property given back to the community after the communist regime ended, property that belonged to Jews before the Holocaust,” said one member who requested anonymity. “Determining how this money is spent is at the root of our problems.”