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Around the Jewish World in Croatia, President’s Comments Aggravate a Fight over Chief Rabbi

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The Croatian president’s intervention in a dispute over the dismissal of the Jewish community’s rabbi has ignited a potentially broader dispute between community leaders and the head of state. In a vote last week, the Zagreb Jewish Community board confirmed a May 31 decision not to renew the contract of Israel-born Rabbi Kotel Da-Don, who for the past seven years has served as Croatia’s only rabbi.

Leaders of the nine Jewish communities that form the Croatian Jewish Coordination, or Federation, also voted Tuesday to drop Da-Don, 37, as Croatia’s chief rabbi.

The decision in May to let Da-don go split the 2,500-member Jewish community and touched off months of public insults, accusations of corruption, poison-pen letters and even physical threats that received wide press coverage.

Community members and outside observers compared the volatile situation to that in Prague, where factional conflict over the past year has led to violence.

“Both sides are full of hatred and frustration,” said one Croatian Jew, who did not want to be quoted by name.

In controversial remarks splashed over the local media this week, President Stipe Mesic, whose daughter is a friend of Da-Don and whose grandson attends the Zagreb Jewish school, appeared to come down squarely on the side of Da-Don’s supporters.

He questioned the motives of the Jewish lay leadership and compared their decision to fire Da-Don to the Nazi expulsion of Jews during the Holocaust.

“This is not a matter of religious affairs,” he was quoted as saying. “A specific group of people has financial interests and would like to control the property of the Jewish community, and therefore they would like to get rid of the rabbi.”

“A group of people in the Zagreb Jewish Community are acting like the Nazis in World War II,” he added. “They are expelling the rabbi out of the country according to the same principle by which the Nazis drove Jews into concentration camps.”

The mainstream media generally dismissed Mesic’s remarks as a case of speaking without thinking.

“The next time, his grandson should be asked to give comments concerning the rabbi,” quipped a columnist in the mass-market weekly Globus.

But Croatian Jewish leaders reacted with outrage.

“Mesic dared to call the Jewish Holocaust survivors in the Zagreb community Nazis,” said a statement signed by community spokesperson Zora Dirnbach.

“What allows the president to make judgments about the legally elected leaders of the Jewish community?” the statement said. “These accusations are shameful, and any Croatian citizen would be taken to court if he said such things.”

Ognjen Kraus, president both of the Federation and of the Zagreb Jewish community, said the community is free to choose its rabbi, and won’t be pressured by anyone.

He said a guest rabbi would come to Zagreb next month to officiate at High Holiday services, but he gave no details about where such a rabbi would come from.

Da-Don supporters, meanwhile, said they planned to break away from the established Jewish community and form a rival congregation, possibly with Da-Don as its rabbi.

Da-Don, who took out Croatian citizenship earlier this year, said he still did not know why he was fired.

“So far I have not heard one plausible argument against me,” he said. “What did I do that was so wrong? Only six months ago, when I applied for Croatian citizenship, Dr. Kraus wrote a warm recommendation and personally asked the heads of the Croatian Jewish communities to support my application officially, and they did so.

“All of a sudden Dr. Kraus seems to have changed his mind,” Da-Don told JTA. “I have been accused of being the cause of the split between community members, but there has been no split at all among those who attend services in the synagogue.”

Da-Don, whose wife is expecting the couple’s fourth child next month, said he planned to remain in Zagreb even though he probably would have to leave his apartment, which is owned by the community.

“I feel obligated to the community members who have been supporting me, and I don’t want to give up,” he told JTA.

Meanwhile, some Jewish community members warned that media attention on the communal conflict could fuel anti-Semitism.

Already, they noted, online forums opened by newspapers to discuss “the war among the Jews” included postings such as, “Mesic should have left the Jews to liquidate themselves alone,” and “These events only show how much the Jewish lobby has influenced Croatian political life.”

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