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Around the Jewish World Torn by Strife, French Jewish Group Could Get an Outside Administrator

January 30, 2004
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Intercommunal strife is threatening the future of one of Europe’s largest Jewish organizations.

Following months of political maneuvers, anonymous letters and personal attacks, two senior members of the Paris Consistoire at the center of the dispute have filed a legal request demanding that the courts place the organization under judicial administration.

That would remove financial control and administration from the community for only the second time in almost 200 years — an idea that Consistoire President Moise Cohen strongly condemned.

“It is unbelievable that two Jews, who are members of the Consistoire, are trying to destroy the community,” Cohen told JTA. “The last time this was done was in 1940, during the Shoah.”

Cohen’s comment, a reference to the dissolution of the Consistoire by the collaborationist Vichy regime, follows the recourse to legal action brought by Consistoire General Secretary Maurice-Ruben Hayoun and Sammy Ghozlan, one of the organization’s five vice presidents.

Both men say that after a two-year struggle to change the way the Consistoire is run, they have no alternative.

To date, they have rejected calls from other Consistoire executive members to have the matter adjudicated by the Paris Beth Din or the Central Consistoire — both bodies that the pair say have an interest in backing Cohen.

According to Ghozlan, Cohen is guilty of “gross mismanagement” and of “not keeping the organization’s expenses in check.”

Cohen denied the charges, saying the Consistoire possessed “considerable resources,” while its financial problems were short-term.

“All Jewish organizations are feeling it at the moment,” he said. “We have over 1,000 people working here. It only takes a drop in revenue of one-half of 1 percent to make things difficult.”

Both Ghozlan and Hayoun, a long-time opponent of Cohen on the Consistoire executive, have strongly criticized the fact that the Consistoire is paying for a car for Cohen.

Cohen is not paid, though the presidency is virtually a full-time job in an organization that runs over 100 synagogues and employs around 1,000 people.

At the center of recent developments is Cohen’s attempt to force Ghozlan and Hayoun off the executive on the grounds that their official roles are incompatible with the public attacks they have leveled against the Consistoire in a series of open letters and articles on community Web sites.

On Jan. 20, Cohen asked the whole executive to resign so that a new board could be appointed. The maneuver was designed to force out Ghozlan and Hayoun, though they and three other members of the executive refused to hand in their resignations.

Lazare Kaplan, a senior member of the executive and a Cohen supporter, said the president had been left with little choice.

“These articles do great damage to the Consistoire,” Kaplan said. “We told them, ‘You are part of the executive. You either abide by majority decisions or you leave and become part of the opposition.’ We have to get rid of them.”

For his part, Ghozlan said he had tried over a long period to present criticisms internally.

“What am I supposed to do? Either I let these things pass and I’m an accomplice — in which case I’m letting down the people who elected me — or we do something about it,” he said.

Created in 1808 by Napoleon Bonaparte, the Consistoire traditionally has held a virtual monopoly over the religious institutions of Western Europe’s largest Jewish community, with a vast administration that includes the Paris Beth Din, marriage and divorce registrars, and a burial board.

It also generally has been recognized by the state as the official Jewish community organization in France — though since World War II a great part of its political role has been taken over by the CRIF secular umbrella organization of French Jews.

Nevertheless, as the most powerful influence in CRIF and by far the largest Jewish organization in France, the Consistoire remains important.

In recent years, however, the Consistoire — which gets its money from donations, kashrut supervision and membership fees — has not been immune to the reductions in financial resources that have plagued many European Jewish organizations.

Cohen said the Consistoire “only exists through the generosity of its members,” but that it now has to compete with other charities.

“We have the same problems as all Jewish organizations in France,” Cohen said. “People raise money for Israel but they forget to give money to their own community.”

Kaplan said Ghozlan’s criticism of Cohen stems from other sources.

“He wants to run the community’s security organization,” Kaplan said, a reference to Ghozlan’s Bureau for Vigilance Against anti-Semitism, which the former police commissioner set up in opposition to the Jewish Community Protection Service, which is backed by both the Consistoire and CRIF.

Another source of tension, Kaplan said, is Ghozlan’s advocacy of separate Jewish community councils for the Paris suburbs, which Cohen regards as duplicating or competing with the Consistoire’s role. Ghozlan is president of the Seine Saint-Denis Council of Jewish Communities.

Kaplan admitted that the Consistoire “has serious financial problems,” but insisted that it was still solvent.

“We had problems with a reduction in meat sales with the fears over mad-cow disease and, like other Jewish communities, we are facing increased competition from other kashrut boards,” he said.

Kaplan said Cohen’s supporters had offered to set up a three-man committee, which would include former French Chief Rabbi Rene-Samuel Sirat, to mediate the issue, but that Ghozlan and Hayoun had rejected the idea.

Ghozlan told JTA he believed the court likely would appoint a mediator, perhaps a leading Jewish judge, rather than an administrator.

All sides now seem likely to accept such an outcome. But whatever the result, community leaders have been shocked by the recourse to legal action.

“This is terrible. The idea that someone who is not even Jewish could run the Consistoire is deeply damaging to the community,” one senior community leader said.

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