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Newsdesk August 29, 2003

Two Iranians Arrested

The investigation into the alleged role of Iran in the 1994 bombing of the Jewish communal center in Buenos Aires was given a boost over the past week with the arrest in Europe of two Iranians, including the former ambassador to Argentina. The two arrests were the first relating to the so-called “international” connection in the bombing case.

Acting on an international arrest warrant signed in early August by Argentine investigative judge Juan Jose Galeano, British police arrested the former diplomat, Hadi Soleimanpour, while Belgium picked up Saied Baghban, a diplomatic courier.

Argentina is now rushing to complete an extradition request for Soleimanpour; a British judge has given Galeano one month to detail the charges against Soleimanpour. At press time, the procedure for the extradition request with Belgium could not be ascertained.

“We are delighted by the arrest,” said Marta Nercellas, a lawyer for the Argentinean Jewish umbrella organization known as DAIA, speaking after the arrest in Britain.

In reaction, Iran has suspended cultural and economic relations with Argentina and has demanded an apology from Great Britain. There has been some speculation that Great Britain and Belgium were acting to press Iran at a time when Tehran is facing accusations of nuclear proliferation and meddling in Iraq.

Funding Meeting Canceled

United Jewish Communities, the roof body of North American Jewish charitable federations, has canceled a crucial meeting to help determine whether it would change the formula for funding its two main overseas beneficiary agencies. Those groups are the Jewish Agency for Israel, which currently receives 75% of UJC’s overseas allocation for aiding immigration to Israel, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which gets 25% for welfare projects worldwide. Joint officials want UJC to shift to a 70-30 split to reflect what they call a drop in immigration to Israel and a rise in global Jewish poverty. This may mean a difference of $10 million. Jewish Agency supporters back the current distribution plan.

Federation insiders say the cancellation of the meeting, originally scheduled for September 14 and September 15, means the matter would not be resolved until at least December or January. With the heated, often polarizing, deliberations raging for months within the federated system, some are cautioning against delay. A vote on the formula was on the agenda for last November’s annual UJC assembly, but was shelved.

One federation executive charged with researching the extent of the funding needs for immigration to Israel, John Ruskay, said the delay would not be significant. Ruskay, professional head of the UJA-Federation of New York, said the work would be completed before next spring, when federations will decide their overseas allocation plans for the 2004-2005 year. Ruskay said the delay is partly due to unfinished work on his part: “While we have made considerable progress, we need several additional meetings to refine our recommendations.”

Feds Arrest Rabbi

A New York rabbi was charged with stealing federal grant money intended for a school for disabled children. Prosecutors say Milton Balkany diverted $700,000 in grant money to build the school, instead using it for personal gain and for companies in New York and Israel that are connected to his family. Balkany, who is free on bail, runs a Brooklyn school called Bais Yaakov. A lawyer for Balkany said his client is innocent and will be exonerated.

Yoffie Proposal Rejected

American Jewry’s top representative body has rejected a proposal to overhaul the organization.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has periodically come under fire for issuing statements that members say were not approved by a consensus. Calls for change have been led by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the member of the 52-group conference representing the largest number of constituents. Yoffie had proposed the creation of an executive committee to guide the conference and limit the power currently held by the organizations rotating volunteer chairman and its executive vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein.

Yoffie’s proposal was backed by the top executives of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the coordinating body for 123 local community-relations councils and 13 national organizations. Others who criticized the conference’s decision-making process, but did not necessarily support Yoffie’s proposal, included the Anti-Defamation League; ARZA/World Union, the Reform Zionist organization; Labor Zionist Alliance; National Committee for Labor Israel, and Americans for Peace Now.

Earlier this month, the conference’s committee on “process and procedure” shot down Yoffie’s proposal. “The committee didn’t feel the conference would function better with an executive committee,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, co-chairman of the committee and the executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

Yoffie and other backers of the proposal registered their disappointment and vowed to continue to push for greater oversight at the conference. “I don’t think it’s over,” said Hannah Rosenthal, the executive director of the public affairs council. “The Presidents’ Conference will continue to struggle with this until there is a consensus built that takes into account the size and strength of an organization.”

“There is no major Jewish organization in the country that functions without an executive body,” Yoffie said. Although he acknowledged that conference members discussed the proposal at length, he felt “there wasn’t any real openness to consider the options I raised.”

The United Synagogue’s top professional, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, said that since the debate emerged last year the conference’s executives had increased their consultation with member groups. Epstein said that in the next month he would see whether this change has been “constructive.” If it hasn’t, Epstein said, he may “come up with an alternative suggestion” for restructuring the conference.

Barak and Wife Separate

Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and his wife, Nava, have reached an agreement on a temporary separation. The family court in Rishon Letzion Tuesday placed a gag order on all details of the agreement signed by the two. Lawyers for the couple said the two had agreed on a temporary split.

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