Who does Israel Singer represent? That’s the question several angry Jewish interfaith leaders are asking this week after Singer met privately in Rome with Pope John Paul II and raised several key issues between the Vatican and the Jewish community (apparently without the authorization of IJCIC) the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations.
IJCIC, composed of the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform representatives and others, is supposed to be the official liaison between the Jewish community and the Vatican. Singer is currently co-chair of IJCIC.
The problem, critics told The Jewish Week, is that Singer has recently been blurring the lines between his IJCIC chair and his role heading the World Jewish Congress where his newly created title is "chairman of the governing board."
Some IJCIC members said they are concerned that he is using IJCIC to bolster his WJC post.
Also at issue is who represents the establishment Jewish community to leaders of other world faiths, and how they do it.
During last week’s meeting, Singer reportedly received the pope’s blessing for a WJC project to work with the Catholic charity Caritas to help suffering children in Argentina.
But in addition, when Singer and WJC president Edgar Bronfman Sr. met with the pope they brought up issues that are supposed to be under IJCIC’s domain: albeit without IJCIC authorization, some members charged.
One of the key topics was the Jewish community’s continuing request that the Vatican fully and speedily open its World War II-era secret archives to try and determine the role of the Vatican and Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust. Some scholars say the wartime pope failed to do enough to save Europe’s Jews from genocide.
In addition, Singer reportedly asked the pope to support an initiative to have Catholic Bishops’ Conferences from around the world adopt public statements against anti-Semitism. Singer made it clear it is a World Jewish Congress initiative.
"He blindsided the other people in IJCIC," said Dr. Eugene Korn, ADL’s director of interfaith affairs and an IJCIC member. "These [two] programs should be under the banner of IJCIC. The whole point is to present a unified voice of the established Jewish world. Clearly that didn’t happen here."
In an ADL memo about the meeting with the pope, obtained by The Jewish Week, even the pope seemed unsure of his audience
"The Pope’s speech was addressed to the ‘distinguished representatives of the World Jewish Congress and of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations,’" although, "the Jewish delegation was composed entirely of WJC people with the exception of Seymour Reich," IJCIC’s immediate past chairman, and Singer.
The memo states that "ADL and other IJCIC member organizations had not been informed of the WJC trip to Rome beforehand. Perhaps this issue should be discussed at the next IJCIC meeting in NY."
Rabbi James Rudin, AJCommittee’s senior interreligious adviser, said he is concerned about Singer blurring his responsibilities.
"I really want a full examination," said the former IJCIC chairman. "It’s been a continuing problem at IJCIC and we need to resolve it once and for all." Two other IJCIC members were also privately angry about Singer’s actions.
But Singer defended his meeting with the pope during a phone interview Tuesday from Greece.
Singer said he has a right to bring up interfaith topics with the pope as he sees fit, claiming that the heads of other IJCIC constituent members have done so in the past. A review by The Jewish Week found that they were not chairing IJCIC at the time they met with the pontiff or other top Vatican officials.
Pressed further, Singer said he didn’t want to miss a chance to bring up major issues with John Paul.
Lastly, Singer said he had prior approval from his co-chair Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.
"I think it enhanced IJCIC," Singer said. "I don’t think anybody’s really unhappy."
Rabbi Meyers was unavailable for comment.
Singer said he chose Reich to raise the archives issue to the pope. Reich angered Vatican officials two years ago when he publicly accused them of undermining a joint team of Jewish-Catholic historians by refusing access to sensitive Vatican war archives.
Reich, during a telephone interview from Greece, said Singer asked him to participate in last week’s WJC meeting at the last minute.
Reich said Singer’s actions do not trouble him. "In terms of the two hats Singer was wearing, they are reciprocal: one helps the other and to the extent both organizations were mentioned it helps both."
But in February, Singer raised eyebrows with IJCIC members when a dinner on behalf of French Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger credited the WJC and left out IJCIC. Rabbi Meyers was upset by the incident, colleagues said.
Rabbi Meyers, Singer and a small IJCIC delegation were in Thessaloniki, Greece, this week meeting with religious leaders of the Greek Orthodox church.
Singer’s aide, Pinchas Shapiro, declined to discuss the "two hats" issue. But his status is indicative of the problem.
The recently hired Yeshiva University graduate, reached in Greece, helps coordinate IJCIC activities, but said he is paid by the World Jewish Congress. "The work I do for IJCIC and for Singer both come without a title."
When Rabbi Meyers became co-chairman last year, he told The Jewish Week one of his goals was to make IJCIC a viable independent organization with an executive, staff and realistic budget.