Moving to end weeks of internal crisis that had spilled into the press, World Jewish Congress president Edgar Bronfman this week removed two key critics, called for an international plenary as early as this fall, and — contrary to previously announced plans to retire — said he will run for another five-year term.
Bronfman discharged Isi Leibler, the WJC senior vice president, from the nine-member steering committee at a meeting here on Monday. Leibler, a former leader of the Australian Jewish community who now lives in Jerusalem, was asked to “undertake no further activity” on behalf of the international body, according to a WJC statement. A few days earlier, Elan Steinberg departed his salaried position as executive vice president.
Both men had called for governance reforms and financial transparency in the WJC, Leibler far more publicly and strenuously. He asserted in recent days that questions over possible financial irregularities needed to be addressed, several of them focused on the activities of Israel Singer, the chairman of the governing board of the WJC and longtime Bronfman deputy.
But at the steering committee meeting held at Bronfman’s office, leaders of the group from the U.S., Europe, Latin America and Israel soundly rejected Leibler’s allegations as insulting and without basis, and affirmed their support for Bronfman and Singer, according to attendees.
Bronfman announced that the next international plenary, originally scheduled for early 2006, will be held as early as this fall, and that he will run for another five-year term as president “to assure the success” of his effort to enact reforms in “leadership, operations and policies,” noted a public statement.
Bronfman, president of the WJC since 1981, had said in recent years that he intended to step down from his post at the next plenary. The meetings are normally held every five years.
Critics of Leibler suggest that he dislikes Bronfman for personal and political reasons — he is more to the right than Bronfman on Israel issues — and that he hoped to succeed the Seagrams heir as president.
Leibler insists he had no interest in becoming president and that the issue was about accountability and responsibility rather than personality or political views.
In a 20-minute address to the steering committee on Monday before his censure, he stressed his inability to gain access to detailed financial operations of the organization and called attention to a $1.5 million account that was transferred from the WJC in New York to a bank in Geneva in 2001. He insisted that Singer appeared to be the only official who knew of the account. Singer has said the funds were intended to be used for WJC pensions, including his own.
Leibler made reference to reports from Daniel Lack, the legal adviser of the WJC in Geneva, who on discovery of the $1.5 million account this summer called for an outside inquiry and audit, and has continued to do so.
But Steven Herbits, a former top Seagrams aide appointed transition director of the WJC, said he denied Leibler’s request that the Lack memo be distributed to the steering committee. “It was a rehash of earlier statements,” Herbits told The Jewish Week.
Lack is being let go, as of the end of October, and some WJC officials say his complaints are a result of bitterness.
Herbits offered a vigorous defense of the WJC activities and insisted that since Leibler and Steinberg in effect were running the operations of the organization for the last year, they could easily have traced the paper trail of the $1.5 million account, as he did when he took over the administration of the WJC early this month. “It was all right there, I had no trouble finding it,” he said. “So why the noise?”
He said the account at all times was known, visible and under control of the executives.
Herbits also said that Leibler and Steinberg could have brought in new auditors at any time if they indeed were frustrated at the quality of existing audits.
Herbits, a former adviser to three Defense Department heads, including Donald Rumsfeld, said he will be meeting with the WJC auditors this week “to probe certain issues,” and if he determines that additional work is needed, he will seek outside experts.
Before being dismissed on Monday from the steering committee, Leibler told his colleagues they should insist on “fiscal transparency and corporate governance,” asserting that other non-profit organizations do not operate “in such a cavalier manner.”
He said he will not be “intimidated by censures,” noting that “the days when leaders and professionals treated organizations like personal fiefdoms are gone.
“I believe that ultimately Jewish people power will vindicate what I am striving for,” he said.
But Herbits maintained that the actions of the steering committee were an example of democracy in action, since the members are the elected leaders of the various international branches of the WJC.
Bronfman and Singer have been “impugned” by Leibler’s “unfounded” charges that have “damaged the WJC and its place in the world,” he said.
Herbits emphasized that his work will speak for his integrity, and that when “I’m done my efforts will be fully documented and unimpeachable.”
In the meantime, the key officials who raised charges against the WJC are out of power, and the leadership is anxious to move forward, concentrating on world issues like anti-Semitism rather than “turbulence,” as Herbits called it, from within.