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Firing splits Zagreb Jewish community

ROME, July 3 (JTA) — Following the abrupt dismissal of Croatia’s chief rabbi, a bitter conflict has erupted in Zagreb’s Jewish community. Since the firing, which occurred a little more than a month ago, leading Croatian Jewish figures have exchanged public insults and accusations of corruption, and there have been reports of anonymous letters and physical threats. Speaking of “dangerous and terrible partisanship,” community members and outside observers alike compared the volatile situation to that in Prague, where factional conflict over the past year has led to violence. “It’s very ugly, like a dybbuk has come into our community,” said a longtime community activist who did not want to be identified by name. “But I am trying to lie low and not take sides.” Local media, meanwhile, have seized on the affair. Globus, the leading Croatian newsmagazine, ran five pages on it in its current issue, and newspapers have splashed headlines and front-page stories. “The result is that five minutes ago I had an anonymous telephone call, and the person on the other side was really rude,” the community activist said, asserting that the dispute has “produced anti-Semitic reactions.” The crisis erupted May 31, when the Jewish Community Council elected Ognjen Kraus to a fourth consecutive term as community president and also narrowly voted 13-11 not to renew Israel-born Rabbi Kotel Dadon’s annual contract as chief rabbi of Croatia. The ouster was unexpected. Dadon, who is Orthodox, has served the mainly secular community of fewer than 1,500 people for seven years. He sometimes clashed with the community leadership, but he was generally respected. During his tenure he introduced Kashrut, conducted Jewish weddings, arranged for a number of conversions, helped set up a Jewish school in Zagreb, published an encyclopedia about Judaism for the general public, and represented the Jews of Croatia on many public occasions. Dadon and his supporters, who included the more observant members of the board as well as others, loudly protested the vote, claiming no valid or solid reasons had been given to support Dadon’s dismissal. They received vociferous support from the Conference of European Rabbis, of which Dadon is a member. “This is both unacceptable in civil as well as in Jewish law,” the conference’s executive secretary, Aba Dunner, wrote to Kraus. The conference, he said, “cannot accept the manner in which Rabbi Dadon has been asked to leave, and we ask you to please ensure that this notice of dismissal is withdrawn in order to avoid embarrassment and pain to Rabbi Dadon and to your community.” Dunner went even further and asked Croatian President Stipe Mesic to try to mediate the situation. Mesic is a friend of Dadon and, though not Jewish, has a grandchild who attends the Jewish school. “It was an unusual step,” Dunner told JTA from London. “But we wanted the president to see that people outside Croatia support Rabbi Dadon.” He said he had contacted Mesic at Dadon’s request, but Mesic has not taken an official stance on the issue. But this move outraged the Jewish community’s leadership, who accused Dunner of outside interference. “Your act is a denial of a legitimate decision made by the authorities of the Zagreb Jewish community,” Kraus wrote to Dunner in a letter whose text was obtained by JTA. In another letter, he told Dunner that the community leadership had long been dissatisfied with Dadon’s performance but was “not going to share the reasons” for its decision dismiss him “since we do not feel that anyone should be involved except of the decision-making institution (Zagreb Jewish community) nor would we ever interfere in your decisions.” A stormy, four-hour community general assembly last week resulted in a vote to ask the council to reconsider its decision on Dadon, but no date for a meeting was set. “The rabbi was the last pillar who would be an independent element in the Jewish community,” historian Ivo Goldstein, a secular Jew who is a leader of Dadon’s supporters, told JTA from Zagreb.