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Prague’s Top Jewish Official Loses Job in President’s Office

December 21, 2001
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As far as the leader of Prague’s Jewish community is concerned, the spirit of native son Franz Kafka is alive and well in the Czech capital.

Forced out as a senior aide to President Vaclav Havel because his role as a Jewish leader allegedly clashed with his state post, Tomas Jelinek invoked the sort of anonymously sinister plots that have become synonymous with Kafka’s fiction.

Jelinek, who worked as an economist in the political department of Havel’s presidential office, was told that his election as chairman of the Jewish community last April breached Czech labor codes because the community acts like a business in conducting financial transactions.

Jelinek said he reluctantly agreed to terminate his contract at the end of October to spare Havel potential embarrassment. Since then he has been given a short-term, non-staff contract to clear his desk of current projects.

Jelinek, who now has taken on the role of Prague Jewish community chairman on a full-time basis, said he was extremely disappointed at the way Havel’s office handled his case.

“They were clearly unhappy that I became chairman of the Prague Jewish community, and they found some reason that it was inappropriate for me to carry out both functions,” he said.

“It is like something from a Franz Kafka novel, in which a person doesn’t know what he is accused of until he is found guilty. They told me nothing behind the reasons, other than the fact that it was against the labor code.”

The presidential office’s chief of staff, Ivo Mathe, said the office had consulted a number of lawyers in an attempt to keep Jelinek in his post.

“I tried for seven months to find one legal opinion that supported Mr. Jelinek’s position, but unfortunately they all said the same, that he must leave because he is chairman of a business,” Mathe said.

Jelinek said his own legal advisers had said the Prague Jewish community is a non-profit organization, and therefore not a business in terms of the labor code.

He also argued that his Jewish community role was very similar to a previous position he held from 1998 to 2001 as chairman of the Prague Jewish community’s foundation, which collects rents from real estate it owns.

“I find it very difficult to understand what the problem is because there were no objections raised regarding my role with the foundation,” he said.

Havel met Jelinek last week to thank him for his work in the political department during the past five years.

“It was clear that the president was not aware of the circumstances of my departure. We talked mainly about my work and the revival of the Jewish community in Prague, but I also informed him of the reasons for my departure,” Jelinek said.

Jelinek said he had been left with only two options — to leave his post quietly or sue the state.

“I decided to leave because I did not want to harm the president’s image by going to court,” he said. “President Havel has always shown great respect for the position of Jews in the Czech Republic, and he was extremely supportive in the struggle for restitution for the Jewish communities here in the 1990s.”

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