Cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder says he is running to be president of the World Jewish Congress not just to restore the embattled organization’s reputation but also to bring “transparency” to the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany, of which WJC is a member.
In an interview with The Jewish Week Tuesday, the prominent Jewish philanthropist charged that the Claims Conference, which distributes funds to Holocaust survivors and to the victims’ heirs, had “anywhere between $900 million and $9 billion available at a time when 80,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel are living below the poverty line. And the question is why is the Claims Conference holding the money?”
Lauder said he would use his presidency to clean house while “no one else wants to do it,” including his
rival for the WJC post, Mendel Kaplan, chair of the WJC executive committee.
He implied he would also use the WJC platform to call for more accountability within the Claims Conference.
Hillary Kessler Godin, a spokesperson for the Claims Conference, said that according to its 2005 audit, the conference had $900 million in assets at the end of the year, and that all but $275 million in funds are committed for specific payments. In 2006, she added, the conference “administered allocations totaling $92 million” to agencies providing social services to Holocaust survivors in Israel.Kessler Godin said the group maintains high standards of financial accountability, and noted that its allocations are detailed on the conference’s Web site.
A spokeswoman for Kaplan, Jacky Warman, said Kaplan is declining all interviews until after the June 10 committee vote.
His supporters, including Pierre Besnainou, head of the European Jewish Congress, point to Kaplan’s experience within and outside of the WJC. A South African industrialist living in Israel, Kaplan was chair of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel (1987-1995), chair of the world board of trustees of Keren Hayesod (1983-1987), and served in a number of top posts in the South African Jewish community.
Lauder supporters portray Kaplan as part of the problem at the WJC, asserting that he opposed an outside audit of the group several years ago when allegations about its financial and governing practices first came to light.
Those allegations, including information on the transfer of $1.2 million in WJC funds to a Swiss bank account by Israel Singer, then secretary general of the organization, led to an investigation by then-Attorney General of New York State Eliot Spitzer, and the subsequent firing of Singer and early resignation of Edgar Bronfman after more than 25 years at the helm.
Lauder, in his first detailed interview on his decision to seek the WJC presidency, said he decided to do so despite concerns that the steering committee, which will vote June 10, may be stacked against him.
Part of what changed his mind, he said, was an article in The Jewish Week May 18 in which Claims Conference officials said the audit they were conducting into funding for one of its grantees, March of the Living, would examine procedures “currently in place” and going forward.
The newspaper reported that March of the Living, a group that brings diaspora youngsters to concentration camps in Poland and then to Israel each spring, paid a New York consultant more than $700,000 for work he could not explain.
Lauder said it was “absurd” that the Claims Conference would not review March of the Living’s past finances, given the alleged improprieties.
He implied that Kaplan would not be reform-minded as president of the WJC or in its role at the Claims Conference.
Why would Lauder want to take on the presidency of an organization mired in scandal for almost three years and seen to be imploding?
His response was that he has been deeply involved in Jewish life for more than 20 years because he cares about the Jewish future and because he “can make a contribution” — not just in funds but in expertise. He noted that he chaired the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and took over as lay leader of the Jewish National Fund more than a decade ago when it was dealing with a financial scandal of its own.
He said he restored the JNF’s reputation and helped it grow by making major changes in personnel, bringing in “talented young people” in lay and professional jobs.He would use the same approach at the WJC, he said, though he said he did not have a specific individual in mind to serve as secretary general, the top professional position.
That post is held now by Stephen Herbits, a close business associate of Edgar Bronfman for many years, who was brought in several years ago to resolve the internal conflicts within the WJC. But the situation grew worse under Herbits, who upset a number of American Jewish leaders with his allegations that their houses are not in order.
He also alienated a number of leaders of the Israeli section of the WJC when he sought to go over their heads in hiring a director.
Herbits was elected at a plenary of the WJC in Brussels last year. Many observers believe he will step down after a new president is elected. Lauder said of Herbits: “I will respect his choice.”Bronfman had hoped that his son, Matthew, would succeed him as president of the WJC, but the controversies surrounding the organization made the prospect untenable amid calls for more democratization within the group.
Matthew Bronfman’s prospects were also damaged when he was forced to step down as a director of Israel Discount Bank amid allegations he had used his position there to benefit himself improperly — allegations he strongly denied.
Lauder said he would “welcome Matthew in any role” in the WJC, and praised Edgar Bronfman as having done “a phenomenal job” with the organization until “it became corrupted by scandal.”The Israeli business publication Globes reported Wednesday that Lauder and Matthew Bronfman would “compete jointly” for the two top spots in the upcoming WJC election.
Under their agreement Bronfman will seek to be elected of the WJC board.The WJC, Lauder said, has “a great name, a great trademark, so why let it die?”
What will make it a success again, he noted, was “transparency — otherwise it’s nothing.”
He said the group is most important to the approximately 20 percent of world Jewry living in small communities.
“They need a voice, a group to protect them,” Lauder said, adding that he travels the world frequently and is widely known. “I’m always there to protect them,” he said.
Lauder also cited combating anti-Semitism as a prime objective of the WJC, and said he is a proven fund-raiser able to bolster the group, whose funds have fallen off since the controversy began.Lauder would not comment directly on whether he would provide major funds of his own to the WJC, as Bronfman did.