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Infighting and tensions surrounding upcoming elections are threatening to tear apart the Israeli branch of the South African Zionist Federation, known as Telfed.

Voting for six places on Telfed's executive will close Tuesday following what has been a highly controversial campaign which many say has introduced partisan politics for the first time in the immigrant association's 60-year history.

Resentment has built to such an extent that some key volunteers are said to be considering walking away from the organization, which has traditionally involved Orthodox, traditional and secular Jews of all political persuasions from the 22,000-member community of former South Africans in Israel.

Tensions erupted last week when an e-mail circulated calling on South African-Israelis to "vote Bnei Akiva [a religious-Zionist youth movement]" and elect four candidates who would "ensure a stronger religious-Zionist agenda in Telfed." The e-mail, which caused consternation among many former Southern Africans, is seen by some as an attempted putsch.

"I nearly fainted when I read it," said long-time Telfed volunteer Annette Milliner this week. "This is just not how we function. Telfed has never ever been politicized. We sit around the table and work for the good of the South African and Israeli community. It was never important who you were or what you were."

The controversial e-mail was not intended for the general public, said one of the candidates it endorsed, 30-year-old speech therapist Dori Braudie. Like the other three candidates named, Braudie is a graduate of the Bnei Akiva youth movement in South Africa and has had little involvement in Telfed until this point.

"It was sent to friends and colleagues - essentially my age group - who would identify more with a younger administration in Telfed," she said, adding that the four candidates had subsequently circulated a second e-mail stating they are "not motivated by any political agenda," but rather sincerely wish to serve all Southern Africans.

"In any election, people canvas," said Jonny Klompas, 38, of Beit Shemesh, another candidate endorsed in the e-mail. The electrical engineer pointed to Telfed's lack of presence in his town, a situation he hopes to remedy. "The four of us got together only because we wanted to attract attention and I think we succeeded in that."

Ilan Osrin, a third candidate listed in the e-mail, told Anglo File: "We don't want to make a revolution, but to carry on the good work and bring it to new immigrants from South Africa, many of whom are religious. But we don't want to exclude anyone else."

All former Southern Africans living in Israel, plus their spouses and offspring, are entitled to vote in the biannual election for six of up to 21 places on the organization's executive [see www.telfed.co.il for details on how to vote by post or online]. The remaining 16 places on the executive are reserved for representatives of regional committees and honorary positions.

In addition to the four Bnei Akiva graduates endorsed in the e-mail, six other candidates are standing for the six places available on the executive. These six, who include veteran Telfed volunteers, signed and circulated their own e-mail, announcing that they do not stand on any political platform, other than Zionism and the belief in "strong and secure Israel and home for ALL our people [emphasis in original]." It continued: "We do not know what each other's politics are, nor do we care" and included a pledge to serve only the interests of the Southern African community.

In response to the outcry surrounding the original e-mail, Telfed chairman Maish Isaacson posted a statement on the organization's Web site this week, signed also by Telfed's two vice chairs Dave Bloom and Hilary Kaplan, and immediate past chairman Itz Kalmanowitz. It emphasized Telfed's "non-political, non-partisan" character and urged the electorate to vote purely on the merits of the individual candidates.

"We decry efforts by anyone who wants to turn Telfed into an organization with an agenda aimed at promoting a special-interest group, or even worse as representing that group, organization or ideology. The call of the group of four candidates to support an electoral list purporting to have been selected by religious Zionist immigrants, is therefore completely out of place in the coming public election of six members to the executive."

When contacted by Anglo File this week, Isaacson took a softer tone. "I do not believe their [the four candidates'] aim is to politicize Telfed, neither do I believe it is to change Telfed's agenda. I believe it was merely electioneering ... Certainly during my tenure, I will do my best to maintain it as an apolitical organization."

Isaacson, who is religiously observant, said the organization has a record of "total harmony between religious and non-religious." He asserted that claims that the organization was fragmenting into opposing camps are exaggerated: "I don't like to use the word 'camps' because the bottom line is that we are all volunteers who want to assist people who need our assistance - financial, social or with their absorption."

While no Telfed volunteer would dispute this sentiment, conversations with members of the local South African community reveal a split between those who dismiss the original e-mail as an isolated incident and those who see it as indicative of a wider movement to push out some veteran activists and introduce a more religious flavor to the organization.

Former Telfed chairman David Kaplan, who edits the organization's magazine, is mentioned by several observers as central to that group of veteran volunteers whose "hold" on the organization is being challenged. When Anglo File contacted Kaplan this week, he uncharacteristically refused to comment. One observer said that Kaplan's perceived stance as an opponent of a shift toward greater religiosity is likely to be backed by a significant number of Telfed members and especially those living on kibbutzim where calls to vote for the six candidates not identified with Bnei Akiva are said to be circulating by e-mail.

The election of Isaacson as chairman last month, when he narrowly beat Dave Bloom, surprised some of the organization's old-timers, with one former Telfed activist describing Isaacson's victory as an "upset."

Annette Milliner, who served as one of Telfed's three vice-chairs until three weeks ago when Isaacson was elected, says it was during the build-up to that election that she detected a change in atmosphere at the organization. "There's been a lot of subterfuge," she said.

Sidney Shapiro, who has served as Telfed's director for more than 20 years, dismisses claims of those who identify a "hostile takeover bid" as a "figment of their imagination." But he acknowledged that this round of elections has produced an unprecedented excitement and competition: "It's not pleasant on one hand, but there's a positive side to it too. It shows a lot of interest in the organization."

Shapiro said he welcomed greater involvement from new and younger members of the Southern African community in Israel, also noting: "A number of our members have graciously retired at their peak. Others have carried on."

Shapiro added that other candidates for the executive had "in a way utilized [the controversy surrounding the original e-mail] to gain votes for themselves." He added: "It's electioneering. It's legitimate. I think it will all die down. I'm very sad that a few people are upset. I don't see it as a rift, but as a very contained incident."

In response to claims linking the candidacies of the four Bnei Akiva graduates with Telfed's special projects director, Dorron Kline, Shapiro said: "I believe he was making a sincere effort to bring new people in."

The energetic style of Kline, an ordained rabbi who previously served as director of the Israel Center in South Africa and joined the Telfed office last September, has been roundly praised as a welcome addition to the Telfed office. Kline told Anglo File that he had encouraged the four Bnei Akiva candidates - along with "all young people" - to get involved with Telfed.

"I'm happy these four youngsters decided they wanted to be involved in Telfed because that's our connection to the next generation." He described their e-mail, which encouraged potential voters to contact him if they are not registered, as "a legitimate way of electioneering." He added: "They were appealing to their natural electorate."

The election results will be made public on Sunday, February 11. Votes will be counted by representatives from a registered auditing company, plus two independent lawyers.