Jewish World: Body politic

Why is the World Jewish Congress on the verge of implosion?

WJC in Paris 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
WJC in Paris 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The organization is best known for compelling European banks to pay billions of dollars in Holocaust restitution. The non-profit group also played an active role on behalf of freeing Soviet Jewry, and worked to expose the Nazi past of former Austrian president Kurt Waldheim. But today, 71 years after it was formed, the New York-based World Jewish Congress is on the verge of a historic split, following a blistering, six-month internecine struggle over control of its Jerusalem office and the sudden dismissal of its veteran former chairman, Israel Singer. The imminent rupture is expected as early as May, when a steering-committee meeting in New York (barring any 11th-hour compromise agreement) is expected to slice the once-august organization - which bills itself as the "representative body of Jewish communities in more than 100 countries" - into two camps: the Jerusalem office, supported by the European and Latin American branches; and the New York headquarters, with the uncertain support of the Moscow office, officials in the organization said. THE ORIGINAL dispute stemmed from the appointment of Israeli Ambassador to the European Union Oded Eran to head the Jerusalem office of the World Jewish Congress. The appointment was seen by members of the Israeli board as an attempt by Stephen E. Herbits, the organization's New York-based secretary-general, to bypass the Jerusalem office with a hand-picked appointment who would serve as his personal emissary. The New York office of the WJC has called Eran "uniquely qualified" for the position. Then, as New York and Jerusalem remained at loggerheads over control of the Israel office despite on-again, off-again attempts at compromise, WJC president Edgar M. Bronfman stunned organization officials last month by announcing, during an international conference-call meeting - during which Israeli and European leaders said that their telephone microphones were shut off - that he was firing Israel Singer, his long-time associate and confidant. Singer has a three-decade record of service to the Jewish world, but his name was badly tarnished by a financial mismanagement scandal that has long plagued the WJC. After an investigation by the New York State attorney-general's office, which focused on a series of money transfers totaling $1.2 million from New York to a Swiss account, Singer was barred from any future connection with the "financial management, supervision or oversight of fund-raising activities" of the group. But the probe did not find any evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Singer resigned as WJC chairman last year, and was then appointed to chair the group's policy council, an advisory body. Over the last six months, he had refused to take sides in the bitter battle over control of the Jerusalem office, angering organization officials in New York, Israeli WJC officials said. The New York office said that Singer's dismissal had nothing to do with the feud with the Jerusalem branch. A subsequent letter from Bronfman that was leaked to the press assailed Singer for taking cash - "my cash" - from the organization, and called his actions a "sickness." Singer has categorically denied the allegations against him, and is weighing possible legal action against the WJC. A LIKELY split in the organization would come just months before this year's expected election of a new president, after Bronfman, 77, steps down, having served in the position for a quarter century. The election, which has not yet been formally scheduled, but could take place as early as a June Brussels meeting, had been expected to pit Bronfman's son, Matthew, against Jewish National Fund president Ronald S. Lauder in what has already been billed as "the battle of the billionaires." Such a match-up is uncertain, though, if the WJC - which is facing an Internal Revenue Service inquiry and a drop in donations - splits. In the meantime, the organization, which has severed all funding of its Jerusalem office, has hired the services of a top Israeli PR firm to represent it in Israel. But a rupture in the WJC - which lists as its motto the expression that "all Jews are responsible for one another" - appeared this week to be increasingly imminent.