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There are now as many versions of the story as there are people to tell it.

Toronto, February 17, 2001

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Jewish 'voices' in power clash

Television incident highlights bad feelings between CJC and B'nai Brith

Mark Gollom
National Post

ON the day Israelis voted to significantly change the political climate of their country, a turf war on Toronto's Jewish landscape was heating up.

As part of its Israeli election coverage, CBC Newsworld prepared to air a live interview from the Lipa Green building on Bathurst Street, with representatives from three of the city's small Jewish organizations.

The fourth talking head was scheduled to be Frank Dimant, executive vice-president of B'nai Brith Canada, one of the two large Jewish groups based in Toronto, the other being the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC).

The Demon FarberThis did not sit well with the CJC and its executive director, Bernie Farber (right).

Mr. Farber apparently threatened to eject the news crew upon learning a member of his organization would not be allowed to participate in a panel discussion being held inside a building funded by his group. (A CJC source says the threat only came after a CBC producer made "insulting" remarks to Mr. Farber.)

According to the CBC (whose spokespeople said they did not know who owned the building and frankly did not care), the producer insisted on keeping the three lesser-known speakers to bring in fresh viewpoints on the issue.

With one spot available, minutes from airtime and fearing the show was on the verge of collapse, the decision was made: Mr. Dimant was out and Moshe Ronen, president of the CJC, was in.

Days later, The Jewish Tribune, a bi-weekly newspaper published by B'nai Brith, reported a one-sided account of the incident on its front page under the headline "Entire Community Embarrassed by CJC."

There are now as many versions of the story as there are people to tell it. Whatever the truth, what is truly "embarrassing," according to some in the Jewish community, is the endless squabbling between two organizations whose goals may be getting lost in their battle for the media spotlight.

Just weeks ago, the Tribune accused its rival paper, the Canadian Jewish News, of pandering to the CJC when it ran a picture of that organization's members but cropped out representatives of B'nai Brith.

Some within the CJC say Mr. Dimant is stirring the pot and using his power with the Tribune to take cheap, unsubstantiated shots at their group. They say the CJC has never publicly denounced B'nai Brith.

There are also tales of bickering over the order of speakers at public events, bickering over the CJC trying to exclude B'nai Brith from events, and bickering that B'nai Brith shamelessly throws up signs at joint rallies.

Caught in-between are members of the Jewish community who say they must ensure they have placated both groups so as not to incur their ire.

"It's childish. It's a battle of egos," said an observer who doesn't work for either group. "We're talking about huge egos. People who live and breathe to see themselves in the press.

"Something happens -- anti-Semitism, an attack on a synagogue -- you'll be sure they will be tripping over themselves to see who gets more media attention."

A senior police official said working with the two groups on hate crimes was like "walking on glass."

Both groups would help the police but then lobby to be the only one credited publicly, he said.

"There seemed to be a lot of rivalry between the two organizations," he said.

For years the CJC was the only game in town when it came to representing the views of the Jewish community. B'nai Brith Canada relegated itself mostly to youth issues, sponsoring baseball and soccer clubs.

But in the late 1970s, when B'nai Brith created the League of Human Rights, an organization meant specifically to deal with anti-Semitism, the two groups began to compete for territory.

B'nai Brith's change in focus made the differences between the two groups largely structural. The CJC, with offices throughout Canada, has an open membership and is bankrolled by the United Jewish Appeal, the largest fundraising organization for Jewish causes.

Conversely, B'nai Brith, also national in scope, is limited to members only and funded by private donations and membership fees.

Observers say the battle for headlines is partially fuelled by the need for funding.

"B'nai Brith is a self-funding organization. The more prominence, the more they raise money," said another observer. "As for the CJC, if the UJA feels congress is not pulling their weight, they may cut them back."

The result is that independent groups that have sought assistance from either organization are pressured into taking sides and have ended up "caught in an ugly political crossfire," said Dave Gordon, publisher of Afterword, a national Jewish newspaper.

"Although Afterword is an independent entity, it seems it's still a constant political tightrope walk whenever we need to call on an organization for any sort of assistance."

He said he has received flak over something as benign as renting a hall at one organization's building. "It was perceived by the other organization as taking allegiance to a side."

Some say the conflict is a result of a personal dislike between the left-leaning Mr. Farber and the right-of-centre Mr. Dimant.

Mr. Dimant said his main problem with the CJC is its alleged unwillingness to allow others to speak for Jews.

"CJC claims to be the only spokes-organization for the Jewish community. And while it's a fine organization, it's not the only spokes-organization," Mr. Dimant said.

He referred to the CBC incident as "regrettable and distasteful" but added "there have been incidents of this type in the past."

Mr. Farber refused to speak at any length about the CBC incident or the relationship with B'nai Brith, saying only, "We are saddened by any attempt to make a public issue of supposed inter-organizational wrangling. There are too many serious issues confronting the Jewish community for us to dignify these petty and divisive allegations with any further response."

With Canada's Jewish population estimated at about 400,000, some may question the need for two large organizations representing such a small community.

But Robb Ritter, executive director of the Canada-Israel Committee, said both have a valuable contribution to make and both are members of his organization, which must reach a consensus before issuing statements.

But he agreed "the interests of our community would be best served if these two valuable organizations would collaborate instead of compete."

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