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Appointment of Israeli Diplomat Raises Questions for U.S. Jewry

August 19, 2004
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The controversial appointment of a former Israeli diplomat to head the American Jewish Congress is in serious question. Less than a week after announcing the appointment of Alon Pinkas, the ex-consul general of Israel in New York, as CEO of the AJCongress, the group stated Wednesday that its contract with Pinkas was on hold.

That follows an indication by Shmuel Hollander, Israel’s civil service commissioner, that Pinkas had acted illegally in accepting the position and could face indictment for an offense punishable by prison.

Israeli foreign envoys agree to a two year “cooling-off period” once their appointments end in which they are barred from working in the countries of their postings.

Pinkas, meanwhile, left for Israel midweek, apparently to try to resolve the matter, and was unavailable for comment.

The sudden twist came after reaction to the appointment — believed to be the first time an Israeli diplomat was tapped! to head an American Jewish organization — was swift here and in Israel.

Along with raising the ire of fellow Israeli diplomats, the move raised questions about whether the appointment would give the appearance of dual loyalties, a notion that American Jewish organizations have long sought to dispel.

Sources said that concerns about issues of appearance and propriety had been raised within AJCongress.

And the group apparently was led to believe Pinkas would not encounter trouble in getting clearance for the job.

“Recognizing the work he would be doing was going to be for the Jewish people and for Israel, there was no indication of difficulty in obtaining the necessary Israeli clearances,” AJCongress stated in a new release on Wednesday.

“We know that there is a ‘cooling off’ period under Israeli law that he will have to observe and we are unsure of how long this period will actually be.”

According to Neil Goldstein, the group’s current executive director,! “If it takes an impossibly long time, he and the American Jewish Con gress can decide if they wish to go forward with this.”

In taking the title of CEO, Pinkas would have ranked higher than Goldstein. If the appointment falls through, Goldstein said he was “absolutely certain” the group would not seek another candidate.

It was simply a “unique opportunity to bring in a rising star,” Goldstein said.

The appointment of Pinkas was an indication of the extent to which a struggling Jewish group would go to revive itself.

AJCongress, a group that once served as a major force in American Jewish life, has become a less-prominent player in recent years.

At the same time, the appointment came as the group reached its best shape in years, attracting new staff and lay leaders. And after selling off its Manhattan building, it has managed to reverse a declining financial situation, with a budget that now stands at $5.5 million.

Amid the fiasco, Goldstein sent an internal memo to the board on Wednesday reassuring them of the group’s healt! h.

“Two years ago, cash flow considerations led to severe staff cuts that impacted our capacity to provide satisfactory administrative and informational services to our lay leaders, and our ability to attract skilled fund raising or programmatic staff to work for us,” according to the memo obtained by JTA.

“Today, by contrast, the value of AJCongress endowments and trusts, additional trusts under the direction of AJCongress officers and leaders, and liquid assets total nearly $30 million,” Goldstein wrote.

“Without touching the corpus of any of these funds, by the end of this year we will be debt free, situated in newly built and furnished headquarters and — even after adding new staff — will enjoy the first budget surplus in years.”

Among the Jewish defense agencies, the historically progressive AJCongress has been overshadowed by the more moneyed and higher-profile American Jewish Committee and Anti-Defamation League.

The group found its niche in the civ! il rights movement, aiming to secure Jewish rights by taking up the ca use of all minorities. In that liberal tradition, the group argued for land-for-peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict long before the days of Oslo.

But its hallmark has been and continues to be its pre-eminence in arguing for the separation of church and state.

Recently, the group has shifted rightward when it comes to Israeli policy — firing liberal directors and hiring conservative ones, causing mutinies by local chapters in Boston and Los Angeles that regrouped under different names.

When the appointment of Pinkas was announced, AJCongress leaders pitched him as a good fit to help lead the organization.

Pinkas served as consul general of Israel in New York for three years, after serving in senior positions in several Labor governments. He was a foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and a political adviser to Shimon Peres when the latter was foreign minister.

Before joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Pinkas was a journalist.

“Pe! ople try to corral us into a corner by defining us as left, right, center,” said the AJCongress’ chairman, Jack Rosen. “The organization has become much more centrist, much more pragmatic,” he said, adding that “Alon is a centrist.”

Ultimately, he said, “we need to tap into the skills of an experienced leader here who understands the issues at an important time for the community.”

Some American Jewish officials were skeptical about the appointment.

It will “fudge the image” of the AJCongress and perhaps compromise its credibility when lobbying world or domestic governments, said Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL.

Another, who asked not to be identified, posed this question: “Can one go to bed as an Israeli ambassador and wake up in the morning as an American Jewish leader, with everything that entails — values, structure, orientation, you name it?”

But some called the maneuver a boon for AJCongress.

“Alon Pinkas will be a breath of fresh air f! or AJCongress,” which has been seeking a higher public profile and to restore its prominence in the Jewish world, Matthew Dorf, a media strategist who formerly worked for AJCongress, said at the time.

“Anyone who has been watching for the demise of AJCongress is going to be saddened by these developments because the group is surely on the rise.”

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