Jewish Agency Board of Governors Expected to Elect South African
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Jewish Agency Board of Governors Expected to Elect South African

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A wealthy South African Jewish businessman was expected to be chosen Thursday night for the highest position in international Jewish philanthropy — the chairmanship of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency.

The controversial selection was decided by an eight-member nominating committee in a closed meeting here on the eve of Sukkot, and is expected to confirmed by the full board meeting now in Jerusalem.

The move came after a months-long tug-of-war between Israel’s political establishment and the leadership of Jewish philanthropies worldwide over the choice of new leaders for the trouble laden Jewish Agency. Diaspora leaders have become increasingly strident in their criticism of how the Jewish Agency administers its social service programs in Israel.

The candidacy of the South African, Mendel Kaplan of Johannesburg, had been greeted with discomfort by both Israelis and Americans in the Jewish Agency’s leadership.

“It just wouldn’t look very good these days to have the Jewish Agency run out of Johannesburg,” said one high-ranking leader in the U.S. Jewish federation community, who asked not to be identified.

The Israelis, however, were reluctant to exercise their right of veto, fearing a diaspora backlash against the unpopular Israeli candidate for a parallel post — chairmanship of the Jewish Agency Executive.

According to Jewish Agency power-sharing rules, the chairman of the executive is filled by the World Zionist Organization, and the chairman of the board of governors is filled by the philanthropies — with the “advice and consent” of the other.

Both incumbents, executive committee chairman Leon (Arye) Dulzin of Jerusalem and governing board chairman Jerold Hoffberger of Baltimore, are about to step down.

Kaplan has been promoting himself as Hoffberger’s successor since last winter. His candidacy, which was not taken seriously by federation leaders in this country until weeks ago, had the solid backing of philanthropists outside the United States who demanded a turn at chairing the board.

The board chairmanship had been in U.S. hands since the board’s founding in the 1971 Jewish Agency reconstitution.

According to informed sources, Kaplan claimed he had the backing of Israeli Premier Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Aides to Peres, however, said he was concerned at the diplomatic implications for Israel of having a South African in the highly visible post. An energetic, globe-trotting fund raiser who has served as chairman of the worldwide Keren Hayesod and treasurer of the World Jewish Congress, Kaplan’s own political views were not at issue — although some liberal South African Jews claimed he “travels with the kind of people” identified with the ruling National Party, which instituted the apartheid system in 1949.

Most American philanthropic leaders interviewed echoed the view of nominating committee member Henry Taub of New Jersey, chairman of the United Israel Appeal, who called Kaplan “a liberal in the Jewish tradition” who has “at great risk expressed his well-documented opposition to apartheid.”


Kaplan’s primary opponent was Chicago businessman Raymond Epstein, chairman of the Jewish Agency’s budget and finance committee and a former chairman of the Council of Jewish Federations in North America.

It appeared, however, that the five Americans on the nominating committee — including the top lay leaders of the national United Jewish Appeal, the United Israel Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations — deferred to the strong feelings of delegates from Australia, Canada and France.

The 74-member board of governors is evenly divided between representatives of Zionist and philanthropic concerns — 22 of whom are Americans named by Jewish federations.

Meanwhile, the WZO leaders in the Jewish Agency were speaking out firmly against Kaplan’s candidacy in the days preceding the board meeting.

“American Jewry is the largest community in the diaspora, and it’s important that the chairman’s job go to an American,” said Dulzin in a recent interview.

That view was echoed by the agency’s number-two Israeli, treasurer Akiva Lewinsky, who added that the agency would be in a delicate position if Israeli-South African relations deteriorated.


Lewinsky conceded in an interview that he would not recommend the Israelis exercise a veto against Kaplan, largely because it might backfire against Lewinsky himself.

A kibbutz member and former managing director of Bank Hapoalim, Lewinsky is the leading candidate to succeed Dulzin as chairman of the executive. He was nominated last spring by the Israel Labor Party.

His nomination has touched off protests from a number of U.S. philanthropists who fear he is too much a part of the system they are seeking to change.

Likud, however, has been unable to provide an opponent.

Thus, it is possible that Lewinsky could be elected at the Jewish Agency congress by acclaim — only to face a possible veto from diaspora philanthropists.

The choice of Kaplan as board chairman appeared intended to forestall that eventuality, in part because he spends half of each year in Jerusalem and could serve as the philanthropists’ “eyes and ears” in agency management, U.S. philanthropic sources said.

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