The leadership of the World Jewish Congress appears prepared to rally around its president, Edgar Bronfman, and governing board chairman, Israel Singer, against internal charges of possible improper
A steering committee composed of nine heads of the international organization is due to meet at Bronfman’s office here Monday to determine how to respond to a number of pointed questions raised by senior vice president Isi Leibler, a former leader of the Australian Jewish community now living in Israel.
Leibler told The Jewish Week he expects to be censured, if not expelled, by his colleagues for raising issues in a long memo that focuses on Singer’s authority, including the transfer of funds to a Swiss bank.
“In the long term,” Leibler said, “even if I am a karban [sacrifice], it will force them to clean house.”
In his memo, leaked to the press by several sources last week, Leibler said the existence of Singer’s $1.2 million WJC account that went from New York to Geneva to London to Israel pointed to possible “serious financial irregularities.”
Singer said the funds were intended to be used for WJC pensions, including his own, and that there was nothing secretive or unusual about the account. The money is intact and back in a bank in New York.
Singer has charged that Leibler is raising the issue of the account and the implication of wrongdoing as a form of “coercion” to get at Bronfman, a political rival.
What seems clear amid the charges and counter-charges is that those involved in the WJC are upset and worried that the feud has gone public.
Also clear is that the primary leadership of the organization sides with Singer, a close associate of Bronfman’s for more than 20 years and leader in the fight for restitution of Holocaust funds from the Swiss, Germans and Austrians.
The European Jewish Congress, meeting Sunday in London, issued a one-sentence statement that “rejected unanimously all accusations based on rumors, which have been circulating in the press, attacking and undermining the leadership of the World Jewish Congress.”
The headline, lest anyone be confused: “The European Jewish Congress distances itself from Isi Leibler and condemns the rumor-mongers.”
Observers said the members of the steering committee, appointed by Bronfman, are loyal to the Seagram’s heir. Bronfman has been president of the WJC since 1981 and until recent years its primary source of income.
Bronfman has declared his desire to step down from his post in the next year, once a new constitution and series of reforms are approved and put in place.
Some critics of Leibler said his actions were motivated by a desire to succeed Bronfman, but Leibler said he has no interest in becoming president and that he has long sought an independent and full audit of WJC financial affairs.
Leibler insisted that the annual audits do not include “a detailed breakdown of expenditures or of the following year’s budget,” and wondered why, in the face of such charges, Singer would not welcome a call for an independent audit to put any allegations to rest.
Singer and his top aide, Pinchas Shapiro, deputy director of the American section of the WJC, said the WJC’s full audits are made public annually, as required by law, and questioned why Leibler did not insist on a new system or auditor in the last year, when he essentially ran the operations of the organization along with Elan Steinberg, executive vice president.
Steinberg, who was unavailable for comment, is expected to be removed at the Monday meeting from his post as senior adviser to the president. He has favored Leibler’s version of recent events and been described by one insider as “the Trojan horse” within the WJC offices.
Much of the focus of the recent allegations, which first came to light last week, has been the Swiss bank account. All parties agree that the funds came from The Jewish Agency for Israel. After halting its longtime annual contribution of $500,000 a year to the WJC in 1998 because of economic cutbacks, The Jewish Agency made up for the three years of promised allocations by contributing $1.5 million in January 2001.
According to a Jewish Agency spokesman, the funds were sent to the WJC in New York and not earmarked for any particular use. Subsequently they were sent to a bank in Geneva.
The minutes of a July 18 meeting this year of the operations committee — composed of Leibler, Steinberg and Singer — said that Singer “informed the committee that this was an authorized transfer to an account earmarked for purposes of WJC pensions.”
Singer told The Jewish Week it was “incomprehensible” that there could be any confusion about the purpose or legitimacy of the funds, since Leibler “signed off” on the paperwork.
Another point of contention is the status of the Geneva office of the WJC, founded in 1936 when the organization was established. As part of an overall restructuring, the office was closed in April and several staffers were let go.
This prompted Professor Alfred Donath, head of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, to write a letter to Bronfman on April 25 protesting the move and warning of “disquieting allegations,” a reference to the transfer of funds to a Swiss bank.
Donath said Tuesday that he “never got any real answers” to the questions posed in his letter, and that he was “still waiting and expecting” a reply.
But Donath was shouted down at Sunday’s meeting of the European Jewish Congress when he raised his concerns, insiders said, and he was warned that the European group’s funding from the WJC could be jeopardized if complaints were aired.
At the steering committee on Monday in New York, it is expected that in addition to taking steps against Leibler and Steinberg, the WJC leaders will confirm their support of Bronfman and Singer and discuss how best to end the public dispute, perhaps by creating a finance committee or authorizing a new audit, or both.