Bereavement group riven by infighting

Leadership battle, accusations of improprieties loom ahead of upcoming election in IDF Widows and Orphans Organization.

One month before the election of its chairwoman for the next five years, the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization has broken up into warring parties challenging each other for the leadership. One of the contenders is Penina Cohen, who has headed the organization since its establishment in 1991 and for many years before that, when it was an ad-hoc group and, later, a registered non-profit organization. Her bitter rival for the top job is Nava Shoham. The two women have been at each other's throats for the past year-and-a-half. Last year, five members of the organization led by Shoham sued to have Cohen dismissed, to appoint a temporary chairperson in her place and to advance the elections for a new permanent chairwoman. Last week, the fight took a new turn when Shoham and 24 other members of the organization filed a class action suit in Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court, charging that Cohen secretly organized a "black list" of 631 members of the organization including all the Beduin and Druse widows, Cohen's personal enemies and others. These women were allegedly excluded from notifications by the organization of special events or benefits arranged by the organization. According to the lawsuit, which was filed by Tel Aviv Attorney Michael Bach, Cohen must pay the women on the list NIS 737,000 to return their membership fees for the past three years, plus NIS 631,000 in damages. On the eve of Remembrance Day, Cohen refused to discuss the lawsuit or her fight with Shoham. She told The Jerusalem Post that on Remembrance Day members of the organization should stress their underlying unity and the sorrow of the loss they have suffered on this day. She said she was prepared to discuss the lawsuit after Independence Day. However, sources close to Cohen told the Post that Shoham's attacks against her were politically motivated and were also based on an misunderstanding having to do with the rights of common-law partners. According to the law, a war widow who remarries receives a grant of five years' worth of annual compensation and then stops receiving funding from the Defense Ministry. Shoham did not remarry after the death of her husband, but lives in a common-law relationship. She has charged that Cohen wants to cancel the benefits of widows living in common-law arrangements and has even lobbied the Knesset to enact such a law. Cohen has denied the charges. Be that as it may, Cohen has suffered several setbacks over the past year-and-a-half that are not related to Shoham. The state comptroller wrote a highly critical report of the organization, which receives government funding, under her leadership. Last year, the Justice Ministry's registrar of non-profit organizations refused to grant the organization a certificate for proper administration, meaning that it was not eligible for government funding. In the current "black list" lawsuit, Shoham and her allies also accused Cohen of receiving an annual salary of NIS 500,000. They said she had fired four of the seven members of the elected executive after they accused her of trying to conceal the registrar's decision to deny the certificate. In retaliation, the members of the executive suspended Cohen's membership in the organization for two years. That decision was cancelled by the Tel Aviv District Court. It ordered the organization to hold elections within three months and appointed former Courts Authority director-general Dan Arbel to supervise the elections. Arbel and Cohen clashed and Arbel asked the court to appoint Attorney Yehuda Talmon as temporary chairperson. Talmon then launched an investigation and allegedly discovered the "black list," the subject of the current suit. But Cohen is fighting back. For one thing, she is running in the election. For another, she has filed suit in the Tel Aviv District Labor Court against Talmon, Arbel and the organization over her dismissal.