Seizing the reins of an historic organization riven by bitter feuds and charges of wrongdoing, cosmetics heir and philanthropist Ronald Lauder faces an array of daunting decisions to make about the World Jewish Congress.
Lauder, 63, was elected interim president of the congress last Sunday at a special meeting of the group’s governing board after the resignation of longtime WJC leader, billionaire Edgar Bronfman. Now, Lauder, himself a billionaire, must clean out the Augean stables that the WJC — a once-legendary advocate for Jewish causes — has become in the last few years.
Beyond that, Lauder must determine what substantive agenda the group will pursue for the 21st century, in the wake of its success in the ‘90s as an advocate of financial restitution for Holocaust survivors and their heirs.
Those achievements seem distant now, after an exhausting three years of inside whistle-blowers decrying financial improprieties by the group’s longtime secretary general, Israel Singer; subsequent investigations by governmental authorities; and internecine battles among rivals for power that have left the WJC diminished morally and politically.
But elected 59-17 in the WJC’s first-ever contested election, Lauder moved quickly to the task of conciliation with rivals for power and influence within the group.
Even before the vote, Lauder achieved a coup in this regard when he co-opted Bronfman by reaching a deal under which his son, Mathew Bronfman, was elected — unopposed — as chairman of the WJC Governing Board with Lauder’s support. Then, right after the vote, Lauder mingled for more than an hour with the delegates at a post-vote reception, chatting with and listening to all who approached him.
He later met into the night with the Israeli branch of the WJC. The Israelis had been in open revolt against the group’s leadership since Bronfman ousted Singer, his once indispensable WJC partner, and replaced him with Stephen Herbits as secretary general. Herbits alienated the Israeli branch when he removed its leader, Bobby Brown.
The results of Lauder’s political blitz were readily apparent after the vote.
“It was a fair and democratic process,” gushed Zev Bielski, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and a strong supporter of Lauder’s chief electoral opponent, South African-Israeli Mendel Kaplan. Lauder and Bronfman, he said, “can move the congress forward to attract a new generation of young people who will contribute to its revival.”
Pierre Besnainou, the head of European Jewish Congress and a staunch opponent of Lauder before his election, said, “If the majority considers that he is the best candidate, I must follow the majority. I will do everything I can to build up the organization.”
In his speech before the vote, Kaplan himself, aware his chance for victory was tiny, urged the 77 delegates, to “stop thinking about ourselves and think of the good of the organization.”
“We need to develop a program we buy into, and we need to cut out this tremendous personal antagonism and personal rivalry,” Kaplan said. “That will allow us to be not only an ohr la goyim [light unto the nations], but a light to our own people.”
Meanwhile, a third candidate, long-shot outsider Einat Wilf, withdrew her candidacy at the very end of her campaign speech before the governing board. In that speech, Wilf, 36 and living in Israel, stressed the importance of introducing democracy, transparency and young blood into the sclerotic organization.Wilf said afterward she decided to withdraw under pressure from Lauder supporters. They were concerned she might deny their man a clear majority of the vote, she said. Wilf acceded to their request after being assured of Lauder’s commitment to her agenda of democratization and new generation recruitment.
Lauder appeared to underline that commitment in a meeting with Wilf at his office the next morning.
“I feel he is serious,” said Wilf after her meeting. “He was concerned about content, what young people care about.”
Wilf, a Harvard graduate and former aide to Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, said that at Lauder’s invitation, she would be putting together a series of proposals “in the next few days” for him to consider.
Lauder also met with Isi Leibler, a former senior WJC official who first decried financial mismanagement by Singer at the organization, then went on to become a relentless critic of Bronfman’s leadership and an advocate for greater transparency. Leibler backed Lauder’s candidacy early on. Tuesday, he declared his “personal pride and satisfaction that at long last, there now is hope that the WJC may indeed have turned the corner.”
Still, it is clear that hard decisions lay right ahead that could abort Lauder’s honeymoon. His first test will be to assemble his own team at the WJC. And this may involve ousting remnants of the old regime.
Herbits, a longtime Bronfman aide whose tempestuous management style has made him a magnet for controversy, announced before the election he would resign as secretary general “immediately” if Lauder won. Lauder’s first task, therefore, will be to appoint a new top professional.
Individuals he is looking at are said to include Michael Miller, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater New York; American Jewish Committee executive vice president David Harris; and Daniel Mariaschin, executive director of B’nai B’rith International.
Like a scab that won’t heal, the WJC continues to face legal threats as a result of alleged newly discovered financial misdeeds by Singer, according to a report submitted by Herbits. In response, Singer noted that then-New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer had conducted an “exhaustive” investigation of the WJC. In that probe, Spitzer found no criminal wrongdoing and no harm done to the group’s core mission despite financial mismanagement. “I was mostly kept out of that process,” said Singer in an e-mail, referring to the investigation. “Whatever new evidence [Herbits] has ‘uncovered’ at this point was certainly not something I kept from anybody. I wouldn’t know where to begin looking in the files.”
Then there is the matter of reforming the organization’s internal structure to promote more democratic procedures and greater openness. In her well-received speech, Wilf called on the WJC to move away from the mode of leadership that has governed it for 70 years, since its founding by Nachum Goldman. An autocrat and plutocrat — and legendarily talented diplomat — Goldman established the group with his own money to represent the interests of Jews worldwide.
Goldman was succeeded by Chicago millionaire developer Philip Klutznik, followed by Bronfman, in 1981. All were elected chairman without opposition by an assemblage of Jewish constituent delegations from around the world. Their respective fortunes helped boost the group, with its small professional staff, to the top tier of non-governmental organizations in the international arena.
Delegates last Sunday hailed the spectacle of a contested election between two plutocrats — Lauder and Kaplan — as a revolutionary leap forward for the WJC. But now, with Lauder and Mathew Bronfman installed in the two top leadership positions, the group is in the hands of not one but two billionaires.
For her part, Wilf advocates restructuring the WJC into an international mass membership organization with dues that would give the group a broader financial base, independent of a single patron, or two.
“Then, someone like me could run on the basis of my ideas and have a chance to win,” she said.
Lauder, meanwhile, talked of creating a new youth organization under the WJC’s aegis to bring in new blood.
“It’s not a question of giving youth a little here or there,” he told The Jewish Week after the election, “but of making them an integral part of the WJC.” He spoke of an organization the WJC would fund, yet one that would “be independent, with its own officers and own budget.”
“It will be the only organization of Jewish young people that spans across the globe,” he said, spreading his arms.
Wilf was reserved. “What often happens in Jewish organizations is they create a young leadership division, and it becomes a way of ghettoizing them. We want to be an integral part [of WJC].”
Finally, there is the question of WJC’s program. Preoccupied with its internal struggles, the group that fought the great Holocaust restitution battles of the late 20th century has been essentially without a unique agenda the last few years. It has focused on the dangers of Iran, but Wilf said the WJC’s old approach of stressing threats to Jewish existence is unlikely to bring in new recruits.
“If your issue is Iran, there’s no need for young people,” she said. “That does not change the agenda of the Jewish people.”
She cited the need to address “wider world” issues like “making Israel and Jewish institutions carbon neutral,” referring to conservation and energy production methods to cut down on global warming.Leibler, on the other hand, said the mission remains what it always has been: “to promote the issues of world Jewry, to fight anti-Semitism and to advocate for Israel . . . to make sure the case for Israel is articulated in the Diaspora much better than it is now. That’s what I’d call crucial.”
It’s now Lauder’s call to make.