An internal dispute among the top leaders of the World Jewish Congress centered on power, personality and politics is threatening to implode the venerable organization amid calls for resignations and threats of lawsuits.
The long-simmering struggle, which has intensified in recent days, pits Elan Steinberg, executive vice president, and Isi Leibler, senior vice president, against Edgar Bronfman, the longtime president, and his top associate, Israel Singer, chairman of the governing board.
Leibler, a former leader of Australian Jewry who made aliyah to Jerusalem five years ago, charged that the WJC lacks proper checks and balances. He is calling for an independent audit of the organization’s financial affairs.
In a draft of a lengthy memo addressed to the WJC steering and executive committees, Leibler said that although Singer stepped down from his professional position last year to become chairman (previously a voluntary position), he continues to draw his former salary.
The memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Jewish Week, has not yet been sent to the WJC leadership.
Leibler also wrote that in an action apparently known only to Singer, a previously undisclosed sum of about $1.2 million was sent last year from The Jewish Agency to the WJC in New York and then on to a Swiss bank account, then to Israel and finally London, raising questions about “serious financial irregularities.”
Leibler charged that, in general, governance reforms he insisted on last year and which were agreed on by WJC leaders have not been put in place.
The memo also stated that in June, Bronfman and Singer offered the top professional post of secretary general of the WJC in New York to Avraham Burg, the dovish former Knesset member, without knowledge or consultation from other WJC officials. The offer was later withdrawn, sources said.
Leibler wrote in the memo that “this sort of behavior represented the antithesis of everything we were striving to achieve with a Congress based on accountability, transparency and governance.”
He said it is the responsibility of the officers of the charity to fully investigate the financial and other irregularities to confirm that “whilst there may have been chaos and lack of order, there were no deliberate irregularities or malpractices.”
Leibler has told associates that he has no interest in succeeding Bronfman as president but just wants the organization, founded in 1936 and representing Jews in about 85 countries, to function responsibly.
Bronfman, who was traveling and could not be reached by press time, was said to be upset over the charges and moving toward terminating Steinberg, who stepped down as executive vice president in 2002 after more than 30 years at the WJC. Steinberg was brought back as a senior adviser to the president last fall.
Bronfman also was believed to be initiating procedures to remove Leibler from his lay post. A steering committee meeting to discuss the matter is scheduled for Sept. 20 in Bronfman’s New York office.
In a memo dated Aug. 30 to the 24-member WJC steering committee, Bronfman announced that he was appointing his longtime associate Stephen Herbits to serve as transition manager and run the administration of the organization “until the new constitution is fully implemented.”
Although he did not refer directly to the current turmoil, Bronfman said in his memo that Herbits, who has served as an adviser to three U.S. secretaries of defense, will “rebut any and all attacks that have been made” on the WJC, which Bronfman said he views as “assaults on my tenure, my integrity and my person.”
Singer, in an interview with The Jewish Week, angrily refuted the allegations in the Leibler memo and characterized them as “coercion, half-stated lies and an attempt to destroy Edgar Bronfman by bringing me down.”
Singer said he decided to go public to refute the fast-spreading rumors because “there is no scandal, and I’m not going to be threatened.”
“I’m not interested in making peace anymore,” he said. “I’d rather fight.”
Singer said he has spoken to an attorney and is considering filing libel charges against Leibler.
Bronfman’s Right Hand
Often described as Bronfman’s deputy, Singer at times in the interview referred to himself as the Seagram’s heir’s “consigliore,” “prophet,” “monkey” and his “gangster from Brooklyn.”
Singer is generally considered to be the power behind the throne, overseeing the increasing role of the WJC in combating worldwide anti-Semitism and, most notably, playing a leading role in assuring restitution for Holocaust survivors and securing hundreds of millions of dollars in repayment from Swiss banks.
A rabbi, Singer also serves as president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and heads an international Christian-Jewish interfaith organization.
Singer said the money he receives from the WJC is an “ex gratia pension,” about 60 percent of his former salary of about $280,000 a year. And the money that went to the Swiss bank and is now back in New York was contributed by The Jewish Agency to the WJC, he said, to be used to set up a pension plan.
Singer said the money was moved when it appeared that the funds were being used for administrative purposes.
“This story is really not about me,” he insisted, “it’s about Bronfman and Leibler” and the bad blood between them that began with strong political differences over Israel and escalated last year into personal name-calling.
Leibler, a political conservative, became angry last summer after the left-leaning Bronfman, in a letter to President Bush, called on the administration to pressure both the Israelis and the Palestinians toward peace. Leibler said Bronfman should either retract his statement, apologize or resign.
But Bronfman insisted he wrote as a private citizen and said he wanted the president to know that the Jewish community “is divided and not all right-wing idiots.”
The two Jewish leaders have clashed on other matters, with Leibler calling for the WJC to be more involved in Mideast affairs.
Leibler led the move last year for modernizing the WJC, including its constitution. A task force was established, headed by Yoram Dinstein, a respected legal expert and former president of Tel Aviv University, and personnel changes were made. The WJC also played a high-profile role in holding several successful conferences dealing with anti-Semitism.
But the efforts at administration were not working, according to Singer. He said that Steinberg and Leibler were running things as they wished since they had been appointed by Bronfman to an operations committee of three to direct affairs and make policy decisions, with himself as the odd man out.
The top professional spot of secretary general was and remains vacant since Avi Beker, an Israeli, was forced out last year over issues not related to this dispute.
Singer said he allowed Leibler and Steinberg to go their own way, acknowledging that “my worst failure is that I’m not an organizational type.” Singer said he and Bronfman focused on other, more substantive issues dealing with anti-Semitism and meeting with world leaders.
Leibler said he felt that progress toward reform had been made in the past year.
In any event, the arrangement had all the earmarks of, at best, a dysfunctional family. Then came the allegations this summer about Singer’s salary and the Swiss account, which have escalated into charges and countercharges among the principals, and much confusion within the organization.
Bronfman closed down the operations committee and appointed Herbits to oversee the day-to-day work of the WJC.
One area that has continued to grow, particularly since the success of the restitution negotiations, has been fund raising. Once thought of as Bronfman’s Jewish outlet, the WJC used to depend almost completely on the billionaire businessman for funding. His $2 million annual gift — he also pays for many of the organization’s expenses — once represented two-thirds of the group’s budget.
But about 15 years ago the WJC launched an aggressive direct mail campaign, largely overseen by Steinberg, seeking funds to fight anti-Semitism. It now raises more than $7 million a year from up to 435,000 American Jewish contributors, second only to the Simon Wiesenthal Center in the number of contributors to an American Jewish charity.
A proposed goal of the new constitution for the WJC is to provide donors with a role in electing officials of the organization. But that and other suggested reforms have been eclipsed by the recent feuding.
Steinberg declined to comment for this article. But Leibler said his goal has been, and remains, to establish an independent audit to deal with the questions about procedures and the use of finances. Leibler strenuously denied that he had any interest in becoming president of the WJC, and said that while he is “not a political admirer” of Bronfman, he “appreciates what he’s done for the Jewish people.”
Leibler said he is “deeply distressed” that this dispute has gone public, insisting that he had sought a private meeting with Bronfman, and then with the steering committee, to put in place an audit and settle the matter internally.
He said he is concerned that rather than pursue that route, Bronfman has appointed Herbits, his close aide, to operate the WJC day to day. Leibler said that Herbits was not elected to the WJC, is not independent and could “cover up” the organization’s financial dealings.
“If Israel Singer has nothing to hide,” Leibler said, “let him call for an independent audit as well.”
Told that documents provided to The Jewish Week from Singer included copies of e-mail correspondence between himself and Steinberg, Leibler said it was “the first time in my life that e-mails I allegedly wrote have been stolen.” He said he would look into whether any privacy laws had been violated.
Neither Singer nor his assistant, Pinchas Shapiro, would say how they obtained the e-mails and several other personal documents provided to The Jewish Week.
As for going forward, Leibler said the steering committee, due to meet here in two weeks, is comprised of associates of Bronfman and Singer and probably will act as a rubber stamp for them.
“But I won’t remain quiet” until an independent review takes place because, Leibler said, as an officer of the WJC, a charitable organization, he has a fiduciary responsibility to make sure all questions of improprieties are answered.
For his part, Singer said that until now he did not object and allowed would-be reform efforts to go forward because he wanted to make peace, but “I draw the line at charges of coercion within a Jewish organization.”
“Dealing with the Swiss and the Germans was easy compared to this,” he said.
Dinstein, the Israeli legal expert appointed last year to head the WJC task force on the constitution and governance, said in an interview that both Leibler and Singer are “behaving in an odd way,” and he deeply regretted that the “feud has gone public.” He said a stipulation for his accepting the chairmanship of the task force was that all parties agreed to put the past behind them and focus on the future.
As a result, Dinstein said, he had deliberately avoided looking into past grievances and allegations.
Dinstein said he was satisfied that the $1.2 million that had gone to Geneva was “intact” and now back in a New York bank. He said the money clearly had been intended to be used for pensions, but he was unaware of the details or why it went to Geneva in the first place.
As for allegations of irregularities, Dinstein said “at this point in time the charges are uncorroborated. Some people say that where there is smoke there is fire, but I don’t see the smoke at this stage.”
He said his main concern for now was that the reputation of the World Jewish Congress not be tarnished, “given the environment we find ourselves in” where anti-Semitism is a serious issue — “especially because there is no reason” for a public dispute.