Both sides in the increasingly nasty World Jewish Congress feud got what they wanted from the organization’s assembly in Brussels this week. The leadership put on a display of solidarity, with the 540 delegates from around the world not only showing their support for Edgar Bronfman and Israel Singer by re-electing them unanimously as president and chairman, respectively, but by fully embracing their version of the internal dispute about alleged financial mismanagement and lack of governance as baseless and harmful. Stephen Herbits, the longtime Bronfman aide at Seagrams who was elected WJC secretary general, cited the “vote of confidence in the governing board” as a sign that the controversy had been laid to rest finally, even as he pledged to revamp the WJC’s financial operations.
“This issue is closed,” he said, according to press reports.And Isi Leibler, the senior vice president and former leader of Australian Jewry who has led the charge for reform within the 69-year-old organization, had his moment, however abbreviated, in the spotlight.
Given 10 minutes to speak to the assembly rather than the 30 minutes he said was promised to him, he had a chance to make public his sense of martyrdom as he was heckled for listing the reasons he maintained the WJC needed a full, independent audit to restore its good name. Leibler, who now lives in Israel, said that despite being vilified for his suggestion that large sums of WJC money have been misused, he was pleased to hear Herbits acknowledge the organization had operated its finances in a less than professional manner for years and that new reforms would be put in place.“I have no doubt that in time the WJC will become transformed into a more democratic body,” Leibler told the delegates. “In that context I take pride that I have been fully vindicated.”Rather than lose in the election of officers, as he surely would have, Leibler stepped down from his voluntary post, announcing that he “would not, in good conscience, remain an office bearer in an organization which remains under the control of the same leaders who led us into this morass.”
Herbits later told The Jewish Week the delegates were “hostile” to Leibler because they were tired of hearing his “unsubstantiated claims,” and that the longest debate of the three-day conference was over whether or not to let Leibler speak at all. Herbits characterized the conflict as “a personality dispute” based on “one man’s obsession.”So who won in this struggle that has called unwanted attention to an organization known for its efforts to combat anti-Semitism and secure hundreds of millions of dollars in restitution for Holocaust survivors?For now, the WJC leadership can point to a clear victory. Its top officials have been confirmed, its chief critic is out of office, and its pledge to improve its governance assures delegates that whatever sloppy bookkeeping may have been the order of the past is sure to change. The Brussels assembly voted to create a permanent finance committee (whose U.S. representative is Matthew Bronfman, Edgar’s son) and set up an annual audit. And delegates were given documents totaling more than 1,000 pages said to catalogue the conflict and prove the allegations to be false and malicious. But the blizzard of documentation may prove more confusing than clarifying, and questions about the WJC’s past practices may not go away so fast. The leadership resisted calls by Leibler and several leaders of the Swiss Jewish community to conduct a full, independent audit that would go back several years and then be made public. The group’s officials say they have already conducted several audits, at considerable expense, which have turned up no irregularities.
Still, enough suspicions have been raised — particularly about the transfer last year of $1.2 million to a Swiss bank account — that the Attorney General’s office in New York has opened a preliminary inquiry into the matter.Herbits and, via video, attorney Robert Abrams, assured the Brussels delegates that the WJC was cooperating with the Attorney General’s office and looked forward to an examination that would clear up any impression of misdeeds. “There was sometimes insufficient attention given to administrative management and control,” said Abrams, a former Attorney General recently hired by the WJC to expedite this matter. The general impression left, though, was that these issues could be resolved and perhaps obviate a full-scale inquiry. But several Swiss Jewish officials are adamant about pursuing their call for a probe into past WJC activities. Two former WJC employees, Daniel Lack, who served as legal adviser, and Maya Ben Haim, who directed the Geneva office, were not permitted to speak at the Brussels conference. They have called for a serious look into the $1.2 million account — asking who activated it and why didn’t they know about it — but WJC officials say their complaints are based on bitterness over having been let go. (Virtually everyone involved who has raised questions about the WJC’s finances over the last six months has either been dismissed, given generous compensation, marginalized, or all three.)What is clear is that the Swiss account funds in question came from the Jewish Agency to the WJC.
Avraham Burg, the former Jewish Agency top official, told the Brussels delegates the money was for WJC pensions, including one for Israel Singer. But Salai Meridor, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, and Chaim Chesler, the treasurer, rose to say the funds were not for pensions but for outstanding annual payments.Herbits told The Jewish Week they were each correct and that the statements were “not contradictory but supplementary.” He said the report shows the funds totaled three years of back pay for what had long been a $500,000 annual payment from the Jewish Agency to the WJC, and that the WJC then decided to try to use the funds for pensions, with Singer included.
A number of leaders of Jewish organizations are concerned about the possibility of an in-depth investigation of the WJC by the Attorney General’s office. They worry that any potential finding of mismanagement would not only damage the WJC’s reputation but raise questions about how other Jewish organizations maintain their charitable funds, and may make potential contributors more reluctant to give.
Even those supportive of the WJC and its work assume that the organization, whose budget is about $10 million, functioned for years as a mom-and-pop operation with Singer and Bronfman making financial decisions, not accountable to anyone else. And even those critical of past WJC financial dealings are upset that the controversy was not contained internally and that it has received such wide attention. Most blame Leibler for that.The question now is whether the dispute is over, or just moving to a new turf — from the WJC itself to the Attorney General’s office. That office is not talking, but with the inquiry in motion and at least a few former WJC officials, lay and professional, willing if not eager to tell their stories and pursue their call for an in-depth audit with the results made public, it seems clear we have not heard the last of the controversy.