'WJ Congress must focus on Israeli poor'

Beersheba nuclear physicist, an undaunted outsider, makes bid for organization's presidency.

Vladimir Herzberg 88 (photo credit: courtesy)
Vladimir Herzberg 88
(photo credit: courtesy)
Vladimir Herzberg wants the World Jewish Congress to "come down from the sky, to the level of the simple people here in Israel." This simple statement represents the two pillars underlying his bid for WJC president: replacing the wealthy businessmen who are traditionally the leaders of Jewish organizations and making Israel and Israel's poor the WJC's primary focus. "Even though we have good and excellent people," he says of the businessmen such as fellow candidates (and billionaires) Ron Lauder and Mendel Kaplan, "the State of Israel is in great trouble. People live here without bread to eat. It's shameful. Maybe I can do something about this, together with Mr. Lauder, [former WJC president] Mr. [Edgar] Bronfman, Mr. Kaplan, and every Jew who acts for our people." The trouble with the billionaires, he believes, is that they remove the necessary discussion from Jewish organizational decision-making. "In Israel and with the Jewish people, decision-making is done without judgment and consideration of all the factors. When you make decisions, you have to work with a plurality of opinions. Dictatorships fall because just one person makes decisions in them. Democracy is the correct way to make decisions." Asked if he believed he stood a chance against wealthy veteran players on the Jewish organizational scene, Herzberg, a 60-year-old nuclear physicist who made aliya from Russia in 1996, insisted the election "isn't a soccer game. I'm not trying to win a game. I'm willing to take responsibility. I want to act. This is my way. At the end of the day, I'm hopeful and certain that people who care about what's happening in Israel will give me a chance." To focus the elections on Israel's poor, and since, as he says, he can't afford the cost of the flight and accommodations in New York to attend the elections, Herzberg has called on the delegates to delay Sunday's elections and move them to his hometown of Beersheba, "near the suffering people of Sderot." Herzberg's political activities have yet to produce a victory. Running unsuccessfully for Beersheba mayor in 1998 and 2003, for Likud leader in 1999, for the Likud Knesset list in 2002, chairman of the Likud central committee in 2004 and, most recently, for Jewish Agency chairman, the unbroken chain of electoral failures have not broken his willingness to fight. "All my life I wanted to do something for the Jewish people," he insists. "When I was an underground aliya activist in Russia, I thought Israel was a paradise. When I came to Israel, I realized it's the opposite. There are many problems here, and we have to solve them now. Only then can we help those living outside." Herzberg also takes issue with what he sees as the misdirected priorities of Jewish organizational life. In a jab at the candidacy of 36-year-old Israeli writer and activist Einat Wilf, he bemoans the money wasted on "pointless programs…supposedly aimed at bringing up a new breed of Israeli citizens, men and women with mobile phones in hand who every day eat black caviar in another part of the world." Also, "now is the time to stop throwing billions to people off in the corners of the world, to Cossacks in Siberia. Why are we doing that? First we have to help Israel, then to go to the North Pole to help Jews there." What would he do if he were elected? First, he would begin to deal properly with Israel's foreign image. "Nobody's doing anything around the world," he complains of current efforts by Israel and Jewish organizations, which seem to him woefully inadequate to deal with the harsh reality of Israel's situation. Of the irrelevance of Israel's diplomatic corps: "Who's the ambassador in Moscow? You don't know. Neither do I. Who's the ambassador in London? He doesn't even speak English!" Of the multitude of Jewish organizations working on Israel's behalf around the world: "As we say in Russian, there were seven nannies but the child lost an eye." "I have children and a granddaughter," he says of his bid, "and I'm certain that if I don't get involved, I'm worried about what will happen to them."