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Australian Jewry Infuriated by Appointment to Israel Olympic Body

January 5, 2005
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A man found criminally negligent in the 1997 Maccabiah Games disaster has been elected to represent Maccabi Israel on Israel’s Olympic committee, roiling the Australian Jewish community, which suffered most in the tragedy. Yoram Eyal, chairman of the organizing committee for the 1997 Games, was found criminally negligent for the role he played in commissioning a footbridge over the polluted waters of the Yarkon River to carry athletes to the Ramat Gan stadium for the opening ceremony.

The bridge collapsed as the Australian team was crossing it, plunging more than 150 members into the poisoned river and killing four.

Eyal was sentenced to six months’ community service but did not lose his $120,000-a-year job as head of Kfar Maccabiah, a major complex in Ramat Gan housing a sports center, a 138-room hotel and a convention and events center. It is also the home of Maccabi Israel and Maccabi World Union.

Eyal later was appointed to head the Maccabi World Union’s prestigious North American desk.

Colin Elterman, who represents the interests of the families of those killed in the disaster, told JTA, “Even after all compensation had been settled and paid, I was committed not to rest until Eyal had been removed from any significant Maccabi post. We believe it was highly insensitive of Maccabi to allow him to retain his position as Australia sends a huge team to the Maccabiah, and the last thing they need to see is Eyal taking an official position in the Games.

“But now they have added a huge insult to what is in irreparable injury by appointing him to the Olympic committee,” continued Elterman, whose daughter suffered massive injuries following the bridge collapse. “What next — will they make him prime minister?”

A Kfar Maccabiah spokesperson said Eyal “is not interested in talking to journalists.”

However, Zvi Warshawiak, chairman of Maccabi Israel and the Israel Olympic Committee, defended the move.

“There are over 1,000 members of Maccabi representing over 250 clubs,” Warshawiak told JTA. “They voted for Yoram Eyal to represent them on the Olympic Committee. It’s a democratic process and this is their choice.”

Warshawiak will retire as Maccabi Israel chairman following the 17th Games in July. Eyal has been nominated as a candidate to take control of Maccabi Israel following Warshawiak’s retirement, according to Rami Hypsh, a sports reporter at Ha’aretz.

Elterman has been leading a campaign to ensure that Eyal doesn’t take part in organizing the Games, but his latest appointment would give Eyal a place of honor at all major events, including the opening ceremony.

“Can you imagine that the members of the massive Australian team may well be expected to march past and salute him?” Elterman said.

Elterman called on World Jewry to boycott the Maccabiah “unless this outrage is reversed.”

Following a meeting of Australian Jewish leaders, Ron Weiser, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, wrote to Limor Livnat, Israel’s minister of education, culture and sports, in November. The letter urged Livnat to ensure that Eyal would not be involved in any way with the Maccabiah.

Six weeks later, he said, he is still waiting for Livnat’s reply.

“I’m outraged by these latest decisions. His appointment to the Israel Olympic Committee will tarnish the reputation of the entire Olympic movement,” Weiser said. “We’re hoping for some reaction from the Israeli government, as they provide significant funding for the Israeli Olympic team. I will pursue Minister Livnat for whatever help we can possibly get.”

Several phone calls to Livnat’s office seeking comment were unsuccessful.

Graham Leonard, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, called the appointment “a tough blow for the families of the victims and the for the survivors of the 1997 tragedy.”

“The Australian Jewish community’s support for Israel has never been stronger, but it seems that Maccabi is a rogue organization within its structure,” Leonard said.

In 2002, Eyal was appointed head of Maccabi Israel’s organizing committee. In the face of severe opposition he told Israeli media, “I expected negative responses, but they did not give me the death sentence. I have nothing to say to the people of Australia.”

He has told Israeli media that after the 1997 disaster, “I took upon myself total responsibility and resigned from all roles related to the incident.”

However, time has passed, he said, and after being approached by Maccabi Israel members asking him to serve as organizing committee chairman, and to consider joining the country’s Olympic committee, he accepted.

“I am prepared for the establishment of a public committee to examine my appointment to the committee and I will abide by any decision they make,” Eyal said.

Weiser and Leonard said Eyal’s appointment to the Olympic Committee will be high on their agendas when Israeli President Moshe Katsav visits Australia next month.

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