The new top leadership team of the embattled World Jewish Congress will head to Eastern Europe soon to re-energize stalled negotiations over Holocaust-era restitution payments, Michael Schneider, the group’s next secretary general, said this week.
The political discussions will represent a return by the WJC, perceived as rudderless in recent years, to the activity that cemented its reputation as a representative of Jewish interests.
Schneider, whose appointment as the WJC’s top professional was approved last week by the organization’s steering committee, said he and President Ronald Lauder agree that the money owed by several Eastern European governments to the countries’ Jewish communities and to individual Holocaust survivors — compensation for funds and property taken out of Jewish hands during the time of Nazism and Communism — ranks as the first priority of the WJC.
Poland, Lithuania and Slovenia are among the first countries on the planned itinerary, Schneider said, not offering a timetable of the negotiations.
“Ronald and I discussed this,” Schneider told The Jewish Week in his first interview since his appointment was announced. The patina of Lauder, a former ambassador and prominent investor in Eastern European economies, is crucial to the success of negotiations, which received decreased attention while the WJC struggled to get its own house in order, Schneider said.
“I think it’s in order to bring in a heavyweight like Ronald,” he said.
Schneider, who joins the WJC on Sept. 10 with a three-year contract, said he will work initially to familiarize himself with the organization’s staff and procedures here, to restore its battered image and to bring peace between a pair of feuding WJC offices in Jerusalem. He called the Israel situation “an embarrassment.”
“It’s going to be a fast learning curve,” said Schneider, who was long on enthusiasm for his new job but short on details of what changes he might implement.
Schneider, 68, takes over the day-to-day reins of the World Jewish Congress at a time when, he acknowledges, the organization is searching for new causes to champion, and amid questions about its own ability to function effectively after so much internal conflict. But Schneider sought to portray himself in the interview as being above the fray, coming in with a fresh slate to re-energize the organization.
He therefore declined to comment on the high-visibility, internecine WJC disputes over purported financial mismanagement, which led to an investigation by then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. And Schneider also refused to comment on this week’s escalation of the bitterness — lawsuits filed in New York State Supreme Court by the WJC and its former president, Edgar Bronfman, against longtime secretary general, Israel Singer, who was fired by Bronfman in April. According to published reports, Bronfman alleges that Singer did not repay more than $500,000 in personal loans stemming from Spitzer’s investigation.
“I have not studied [the controversies] closely,” Schneider said. “I don’t want to get caught up in the baggage of the past.”
Both Lauder and Schneider have pledged to introduce greater openness and accountability into the organization’s activities. “We want to be accountable. We want to be open to our constituency,” Schneider, a former top executive at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, said. His plans include visits to many of the overseas Jewish communities affiliated with the WJC. “I know them all,” he said. “I’m not exactly a neophyte.”
Schneider said he will try to reassert the WJC’s leading role in such issues as interfaith activities and the fight against international anti-Semitism, while attracting young members to the organization, establishing “an army” of young supporters abroad, strengthening the WJC profile in the United States and widening its donor base.
“I have reached out” to WJC supporters abroad, he said, naming no specific individuals or countries. “We’re going to be responsible to our people out there.”
Before leaving on a weeklong trip to oversee the operation of JDC-backed programs in South Africa and Indonesia, he spoke in general terms of his working relationship with philanthropist Lauder, who succeeded Bronfman two months ago. He deferred questions about his predecessors as secretary general, Singer and Stephen Herbits, who were the subject of criticism by WJC insiders and outsiders in recent years. According to media reports, Herbits, a controversial onetime business adviser to Bronfman, played a major role in scuttling the appointment of Dan Mariaschin, B’nai Brith International executive vice president and Lauder’s first choice for WJC secretary general.
Herbits, who has indicated he will resign his WJC post on Sept. 9, drew praise for instituting a higher level of accountability in the organization’s management procedures, but served as a lightning rod because of his confrontational style.
For the last few years, the WJC’s round of accusations and counter-accusations overshadowed its work as the umbrella voice of some 100 overseas Jewish communities. The WJC, critics said, lost its focus, its effectiveness and much of its good will.
Lauder and WJC Chairman Matthew Bronfman approached Schneider, who had earned a reputation as a straight shooter and a no-frills administrator during 27 years at the Joint, to turn the WJC around. Among the honors he received was appointment to the French Legion of Honor.
“Michael Schneider will help move the World Jewish Congress into the future,” Lauder said in a prepared statement.“I’m not going to come in as a crusader,” Schneider said. “We have a clean slate today — I don’t see it as a crisis,” he said of the WJC’s current status. “I’m not inheriting any of the enemies of my predecessors. I haven’t made any enemies yet.”
Schneider said the change in WJC leadership and administrative policies removes the cloud over the organization. “We’re not under investigation. Whatever had to be resolved has been resolved.”
A native of South Africa who left his homeland to escape arrest for anti-apartheid activities, Schneider speaks with reserve, choosing his words carefully, a product of the culture he absorbed at the apolitical JDC, overseas arm of the American Jewish community, where he conducted clandestine negotiations with various dictators and communist leaders. “I had to keep my mouth shut.”
He left full-time work at the Joint five years ago to serve as a consultant on special projects and acting CEO of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, a Jerusalem-based reparations group of which the Claims Conference is one of four partners.
Why did he come out of semi-retirement?
The WJC is “a great organization,” Schneider said. “It has a fantastic history.” At the JDC, “I worked parallel with them for 25 years. Wherever I’ve gone I’ve bumped into the World Jewish Congress people.”
Schneider first collaborated with Lauder 20 years ago on the establishment of a summer camp in the Hungarian countryside under the joint aegis of the JDC and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which supports the renaissance of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.
“He is blunt. He has the capacity to talk honestly and simply about big issues,” Schneider said of his boss.
Lauder, who had promised to clean house at the WJC, came under fire for not immediately appointing a successor to Herbits and for not immediately instituting wide-scale administrative changes.
“That’s not how things work” in large organizations with multimillion-dollar budgets and entrenched procedures, Schneider said. “He hired a guy in two months,” he said, meaning himself. That’s uncommonly quick for a CEO, he said. “How long does a search committee [usually] take” at a large corporation?
One of the first congratulatory calls Schneider got last week came from Isi Leibler, a prominent critic of WJC policies who resigned as a vice president of the WJC in 2005.
Leibler had earlier questioned why Herbits, now the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign liaison to the gay and lesbian community, had continued to remain connected with the WJC. “Inexplicable,” he told the Jerusalem Post. “Herbits was originally a key element in the cover-up of the financial irregularities and scandals which led to the moral, financial and political collapse of the WJC. He was also instrumental in demonizing those who tried to reform the organization from within,” Leibler said.
He called Schneider “a marvelous choice … a fresh start” to serve as secretary general. “He represents integrity. I’m delighted that he got the position.
“Now it’s a new ball game,” Leibler said. “I’ll certainly give him any support I can.”
Leibler will consider returning to the WJC under Lauder and Schneider, he said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.
And Schneider, who has known Leibler for 20 years, said it is possible he will try to encourage the WJC’s most vocal critic to come back. “I’ll certainly try.”