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Jewish Agency Treasurer Ousted Following Controversial Comments

June 26, 2002
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It was intended to emphasize the solidarity of the Jewish people at a time of increasing violence.

But instead the 34th World Zionist Congress ended with the ouster of the treasurer of the Jewish Agency for Israel and an injury to the partnership of world Jewry.

Many delegates believed the discord was sparked by the controversial comments made by the treasurer, Chaim Chesler, at the opening of last week’s congress.

Amid a discussion on religious pluralism, which had been expected to be a focus of the congress, Chesler said that he preferred technically non-Jewish people from the former Soviet Union who immigrated to Israel over Jews “who pray three times a day and stay in Brooklyn.”

But others said the disagreement had more to do with the failure to follow the proper political procedures in appointing and approving top posts of the Zionist leadership.

Last week’s gathering of 750 delegates from all over the world for the World Zionist Congress, often called the parliament of the Jewish people, and this week’s meeting of the Jewish Agency Assembly took place during a time of deadly suicide bombings, tragic shootings and the re-entry of the Israeli army into Palestinian cities.

The intent was to create a feeling of unity and solidarity among the Jewish leadership. Instead, the gathering was marked by a certain sense of frustration over how decisions are made and then carried out.

In the end, the congress passed a resolution supporting religious pluralism and opposing any changes to Israel’s conversion law. But events in the country and the flap over Chesler overshadowed the intended focus on Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Chesler, who is known for his outspokenness as well as his success in sticking to the budget for the five years of his term in office, was removed from his position on Monday.

“This is an impeachment,” Yehiel Leket, chairman of the Jewish National Fund, thundered while speaking to the Jewish Agency Assembly on Monday morning, following the final vote on the matter.

“I think it’s wrong from a moral point of view, and from a menschlichkeit point of view,” he said.

“This is not a problem with Chaim Chesler,” Leket added. “There are correct and dignified ways” instead of the way this process took place.

“This is a problem of the WZO, JAFI and our partnership,” he said.

The decision was made by the executive committee of the JAFI board of governors, which includes four representatives of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella of the North American federation system, and two from Keren Hayesod, UJC’s equivalent in the rest of the Diaspora.

Sallai Meridor, the Jewish Agency chairman, was re-elected for another term. No names of possible replacements for Chesler have been mentioned.

Speaking from the election plenum, Alex Grass, chairman of the Jewish Agency’s board of governors, apologized to Leket, saying that he recognized that the process needs to be re-examined.

“We recognize that timing is everything, and that was totally failed,” he said. “But I want to stress that we want to be partners and we want to work together.”

The former treasurer was not present at the Jewish Agency Assembly sessions, and was not available for comment.

The decision to oust Chesler may have been valid, said several delegates. But the committee neglected to follow the correct “advise and consent” procedure for removing an elected member.

That process was initially instituted in the last decade to weed out certain candidates from Jewish leadership positions, due to concerns that political appointees would be elected to positions for which they weren’t qualified.

The committee is supposed to meet before each Zionist Congress, which is held every four to five years, and discuss individuals who are up for re-election.

This year, however, the committee met after the congress was already over, but before the Jewish Agency Assembly.

Any decision regarding Chesler’s re-election should have been made prior to the congress, said Philip Meltzer, president of ARZA, the Zionist arm of the Reform movement in North America.

“With all that’s happening, to get bogged down in how the leadership is chosen,” said Meltzer, shaking his head. “We should have come out with a sense of solidarity.”

Some said the decision and the way it was made may make it more difficult for the Diaspora fund raisers and Israeli professionals to work together.

The groups work together to make decisions about the agency’s $350 million budget, which focuses on immigration and absorption and worldwide religious, political and educational programs.

“We have to make efforts to find ways to strengthen our partnership,” said Leket, who said a small committee was being formed to reconsider the vote against Chesler.

Meridor made an effort to placate the Israeli and Diaspora delegates, beseeching them to treat the Zionist movement and its democratic processes with dignity and respect.

“We may have difficulties, sometimes we offend each other,” Meridor said. “But at the end of the day, what we are about is so important that we must stay together for the future of our people.”

The “advise and consent” procedure was instituted so that communities raising funds could exercise significant control over who receives the money in Israel, said John Ruskay, executive vice president of UJA- Federation of New York.

The partnership between the Diaspora fund raisers and Israeli officials has always been a tug of war of politics and money. The Diaspora Jews wanted to be sure their funds were handled by Israelis — both professionals and elected officials like Meridor and Chesler — who knew how best to spend their money.

Ruskay wouldn’t say whether or not he supported Chesler’s removal. But he said the committee represents a broad perspective of North American federations.

“As I understand it, those involved felt we could have a stronger senior team at the agency that could support the State of Israel,” Ruskay said.

While some suggested Chesler’s position was precarious even before his remarks at the Zionist Congress, his position afterward was even more so.

His comment about preferring a non-Jewish immigrant from the former Soviet Union over an Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn came as part of a criticism of Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s handling of converts and Russian immigrants who come to Israel under the Law of Return, which enables entry for anyone with a Jewish grandparent.

“We should salute each and every immigrant who comes to Israeli under the Law of Return and we must battle against the discrimination of the Jews from Russia who are being transformed into second-class citizens,” said Chesler, who headed the Jewish Agency’s delegation in the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s and had a major role in the large Russian aliyah, including those who are not Jewish.

His remarks caused an immediate uproar, prompting him to issue a statement, saying, “I do not seek argument but rather cooperation between the religious streams.”

At the time of his comments, Mandell Ganchrow, the head of the Religious Zionists of America, and others rushed the convention stage in protest.

Ganchrow later questioned whether Chesler could fairly serve as a leader and said he intended to bring it up with the executive committee.

And the issue continued to roil many.

“Chesler’s comments made people very nervous,” said Harvey Blitz, president of the Orthodox Union.

Speaking from his New York office on Monday, Ganchrow said Chesler’s “public attitude didn’t help him any,” he said. “The fund raisers understand that it’ s a time for unity, not for making public speeches.”

For many congress delegates, particularly those in the Orthodox parties, there is a great danger perceived in bringing in Russian immigrants who are not Jewish.

“Those who aren’t Orthodox don’t appreciate the long-term harm to the State of Israel and the Jewish community,” Ganchrow said. “How could we pass a resolution that we want to be a Jewish state, and on the other

hand, have so many people who are not Jewish?”

Meanwhile, of the dozens of resolutions passed on June 20, the last day of the Zionist Congress, one of the most controversial was regarding religious pluralism.

The resolution called upon Meridor and the Zionist executive to make it clear to the Israeli government that any proposed change to the conversion law that would invalidate non-Orthodox conversions would seriously undermine Jewish unity at a time when there is a crucial need for such unity.

While most of the Orthodox delegates voted against the resolution, it was passed by a large majority.

There was a minor uproar in the convention hall following the passage

of the resolution, with the expected explosion of applause from the Reform and Conservative movements, and downturned mouths and shrugs among those sitting in the Orthodox seats.

There was no debate, as time was tight, but Blitz and Meltzer, representing the Orthodox and Reform movements, offered statements from the podium, seeking to impress a sense of unity upon the delegates.

“The unity of the Jewish people and the continued positive relationship between Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora require the government of Israel not to endorse one view of Judaism over another,” said Meltzer said.

Blitz said the Orthodox opposition to the resolution was “not because we’re intolerant, but because our deeply held view in Jewish law require that we do so. Even when we disagree, we were still able to do so with respect and in fellowship.”

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