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Prominent Australian Leader Attacks Maccabi World Union in the Knesset
30 December 1999

Mr Peter Wertheim, President of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies and a Vice-President of the Executive Council of Australian  Jewry launched a wide-ranging attack upon the way Maccabi World Union (MWU)  has handled the aftermath of the Maccabiah Bridge Disaster which occurred  in Israel on 14 July 1997 at the opening of the 15th Maccabiah Games organised by MWU.

Appearing at the first meeting of the Knesset's re-established Special Committee in the matter of the Maccabiah Bridge Disaster on December  29, 1999, before committee Chair MK Motti Zanberg, Mr Wertheim described  the impact of the tragedy on the Australian Jewish Community. "It is  often said that when an Israeli soldier dies in battle the whole of Israel  feels the pain and the grief. That is precisely how the Australian Jewish Community experienced the disastrous bridge collapse at the 15th  Maccabiah Games." Mr Wertheim noted that there had been an outpouring of  sympathy and support for the victims "from thousands of Australians of many different religious and ethnic backgrounds, including political and communal leaders, religious leaders and sporting identities ... the bridge tragedy and its aftermath are a concern not only to the Jewish Community in Australia, but to the people of Australia as a whole". 

Mr Wertheim cited a long list of grievances of the Australian  Community against MWU and in particular, slammed MWU for not taking proper responsibility for the Disaster and for the failure of the MWU  leadership to stand down from their positions. Mr Wertheim stated: "Messrs  Bakarlaz and Netanel failed in their moral responsibility to the athletes whom they themselves had invited to participate in the 15th Maccabiah Games in Israel ... The organisation of the Games was a penny-pinching exercise from beginning to end. In order to save money, an inadequate bridge was built and inadequate insurance cover was arranged for the athletes. For the MWU leadership, saving money was a higher priority than the lives and safety of the athletes who were in their care as their invited guests ".

Mr Wertheim listed twenty reasons why the Australian Community is at odds with MWU. He said that the Community has demanded three things of the MWU:

(i) the standing down of its President and its Chairman, Messrs Bakalarz and Netanel from their respective positions, pending the outcome of this Knesset Committee of Inquiry and the full co-operation of the MWU leadership with the inquiry; 
(ii) the payment of just compensation to the victims; 
(iii) a review of safety and operational procedures for future Games.

Mr Wertheim told the Knesset: "The position of the official roof-bodies of Australian Jewry continues to be that our community will not participate at the next Games unless the demands I have outlined are satisfied". He then asked: "How can any Australian Jewish leader, in good conscience, tell our community that all reasonable steps have been taken to ensure the safety of the next Maccabiah Games if the same people who were in leadership positions in the MWU at the time of the Bridge Disaster are still holding those same positions"?

Mr Wertheim went on to tell the Knesset Committee that the Maccabiah Bridge tragedy also has implications for the Sydney Olympic Games. Mr Wertheim urged that the Olympic Committee of Israel not to include in its delegation any individual who is an executive member of MWU or is otherwise associated with the MWU leadership. Mr Wertheim told the Knesset: "To our knowledge, only one member of the Olympic Committee of Israel would fall into this category, Mr Zvi Varshaviak. We have nothing personal against Mr Varshaviak, but for all the reasons I have stated it would be insensitive in the extreme for the Olympic Committee of Israel to include him in any delegation to Australia...any MWU official who is included in the Israel Olympic Committee delegation to Australia will almost certainly not be acknowledged or welcomed in any way by the official leaders of the Australian Jewish Community or the leaders of their State constituent bodies. It is also likely in my view, that the government of New South Wales (the State in which the Olympics will be held) is aware of, and will respect, the Australian Jewish Community's feelings towards the MWU leadership".

Mr Wertheim also told the Knesset that "the stress of the victims and their families and of the community of which they are a part has been greatly aggravated by the obtuseness and insensitivity of the MWU leadership. They have continued to give a higher priority to their own interests and privileges than to the lives and the wellbeing of those to whom they owe a duty of care".

Mr Wertheim concluded by saying ..."The respect and affection of the Australian Jewish Community for the State of Israel is undiminished. It is for this reason that our community looks to the basic institutions of Israeli society, namely the Knesset and the Courts, in the hope that we will at long last find justice".

In response MK Nomi Chazan said, "There were two tragedies here. One was the collapse of the bridge and two was the management of the aftermath. If we don't work quickly to resolve this we will be part of the second tragedy."

Irwin Cotler, a member of the Canadian Parliament and participant in the tragic games as a member of the Canadian delegation, urged the Committee to work to repair the rift created between Israel and the Diaspora in the aftermath of this tragedy, "The adverse effect of the disaster is not limited to Australians and the Australian Jewish community but has resonated to the Diaspora as a whole, including Cananda.

Also present at the meeting was Shuki Dekel, Head of the Israeli Sports Commission who stated that he thinks, "the catastrophe of the Maccabiah is the biggest tragedy of Israeli sport. The Committee must repair relations between Israel and Australia before the upcoming Olympic Games."

Click here to read full text of 
Jerusalem, 29 December 1999


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