Elan Steinberg, the former World Jewish Congress executive vice president, died
last Friday in New York at 59.
Steinberg was one of the greatest
political strategists of the post-war generation of Jewish leadership and an
extraordinarily articulate spokesman for Diaspora Jewry. He played a crucial
role in introducing a dynamic and assertive Jewish global presence, which
represented a major transformation from the traditionally passive role
maintained until then.
His most impressive contribution was in relation
to exposing the chicanery of the Swiss banks which led to successful campaigns
obliging European governments, insurance companies and other organizations to
belatedly compensate victims of the Holocaust and their descendants.
also made history by initiating a campaign challenging the former United Nations
secretary-general Kurt Waldheim over his Nazi associations.
initially generated considerable controversy but was ultimately vindicated when
Waldheim was placed on a watch-list, denying him the right of entry into the
Born in Israel to Holocaust survivors, Steinberg grew up
in New York where he received an MA in political science from the University of
New York. He joined the World Jewish Congress in 1978, initially as its UN
representative, but was rapidly promoted to executive director and soon became
their key public spokesman. As Elie Wiesel stated at his funeral, “Whenever Jews
were in danger, or Jewish honor offended, he vigorously yet elegantly spoke
up. Whenever Jewish memory was attacked, he attacked the
But behind the scenes, Steinberg also became the dominant
strategist of the World Jewish Congress, which led it to become the pre-eminent
Jewish international organization supporting the rights of Jews, combating
anti-Semitism and promoting the case for Israel. As a consummate professional,
Steinberg continuously understated his role in this area.
It was during
the Clinton administration when he arguably had his greatest triumph,
orchestrating the campaign which resulted in over $1 billion being recovered
from the Swiss banks and insurance companies in restitution for Holocaust
I was privileged to work closely with Steinberg and witness his
extraordinary achievements. In protest against the corruption and financial
irregularities that were taking place inside the organization, he left the World
Jewish Congress with me in 2004. Ultimately, his position was fully vindicated
and was reengaged as senior advisor to current WJC president Ronald Lauder, a
post he retained until his death.
Lauder eulogized Steinberg as “one of
the great Jewish activists of the past decades... whose premature death will
leave the huge void in the Jewish world... He was probably the most gifted
communication professional in the Jewish organizational world.”
also vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and
He acted pro bono on their behalf, leading their
efforts to condemn anti-Semitism and in particular, devotedly promoting the
cause of ailing Holocaust survivors.
As one of Steinberg’s close personal
friends, I can only say that I will sorely miss him as a remarkably decent human
being as well as a compassionate and devoted counsel on Jewish issues. His
premature death represents an irreplaceable loss to world Jewry. He is survived
by his wife Sharon and three children.
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