The Unbridgeable Gap

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Although anticipated, it was a relief when the Israeli courts convicted the defendants on trial for negligence in the Maccabiah bridge disaster. The unequivocal verdict, and in particular the explicit judgment against Maccabiah organizing committee chairman Yoram Eyal, left no room for misunderstandings.

So much for the hutzpa and obscene justifications by the Maccabi World Union, who until then had claimed that their president and chairman were no more accountable for the tragedy than a defense minister who remained in office when soldiers were killed in battle.

It was only under duress that MWU chairman Uzi Netanel, resigned after the verdicts, conceding that “Eyal did what he did with authorization and permission.”

To my astonishment, to date President Ronald Bakalarz has failed to follow the example of his chairman. This is outrageous and arrogant in the extreme, but perhaps not surprising, given the fact that when I recently urged at the Knesset Committee of Inquiry that the MWU leaders resign “in the national interest,” the MWU representative blasted me, and in effect said the Australian Jewish community could jump in the lake.

As the enormity of the tragedy seeped through and the arrogance of the MWU manifested itself, the leadership of Australian Jewry, in conjunction with Maccabi Australia, initiated a campaign demanding Bakalarz’s resignation. The effort escalated to a point where a few weeks ago, Israelis were being warned that unless the MWU president faces up to his responsibility, not only would Australia boycott the next Maccabiah but Israel’s image at the Sydney Olympiad would be severely tarnished.

It must be stressed that from the outset, the overwhelming majority of Israelis aware of the Maccabiah disaster were shocked and deeply ashamed.

Israelis, more than most people, appreciate the sanctity of human life. They would concur that Australians visiting Israel on a Maccabiah should have been safer here than in their own homes. They were appalled that such a disaster could occur as a direct consequence of shoddy shortcuts employed by the MWU when they commissioned contractors to build the bridge.

ASIDE from the MWU leadership, there is another group that behaved abominably: the representatives of national Maccabi groups who backed the MWU in their thuggish response to the Australians and refused to take account of the anguished appeals by the relatives of those killed or injured on the bridge have much to answer for.

Many of them may have been naive, or were manipulated by the Israeli executive members. But it says something about the commitment to Jewish sport by national Maccabi leaders when, without exception, they were all willing to protect the egos of a few Maccabi office- holders, despite their knowledge that this would result in a boycott by Australian Jewry of the next Maccabiah.

It was truly disgusting that the representatives of all Maccabi groups throughout the world could support the refusal by MWU officials to accept any form of responsibility for the disaster. They knew that adopting this course would lead to the elimination of the third largest contingent to the Maccabiah – representing one of the most devoted Zionist communities in the Diaspora. These groups would do well to do some soul searching in relation to their shameful behavior.

The Maccabiah disaster was probably the greatest peacetime tragedy Australian Jewry has experienced in relation to Israel.

The Australians must take satisfaction that their confidence in the Israeli justice system has been vindicated. They now hope and expect that the outstanding compensation issues involving the Phoenix Insurance Co. and the government will be speedily resolved.

However, it appears that Bakalarz is still stubbornly and arrogantly refusing to stand down. He is aware that his continued presence will mean that Australia will boycott the next Maccabiah.

If, despite this, the MWU is unwilling to overrule their president and persuade him in the interest of Israel and international Jewish sport to stand down, it is clear that the MWU has not absorbed the lessons emanating from this terrible tragedy.

If this is the case, the MWU does not deserve any support or patronage from the public or from any other body, including the Israeli government. It should be treated with the contempt it deserves.

The writer is chairman of the governing board of the World Jewish Congress, and former president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.

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