'Billionaires' set to battle for WJC leadership

Singer's dismissal may dash Matthew Bronfman's hopes to succeed his father at helm.

matthew bronfman 88 (photo credit: )
matthew bronfman 88
(photo credit: )
The turmoil plaguing the New York-based World Jewish Congress - on the verge of a split following months of internal feuding over leadership of its Israel office, coupled with the dismissal of former chairman Israel Singer - will have a serious impact on the election of a new WJC president, officials said over the weekend. The election, which has not been scheduled but could take place as early as a June meeting in Brussels, is expected to pit WJC President Edgar M. Bronfman's son, Matthew, against JNF President Ronald S. Lauder in what has already been billed as "the battle of the billionaires." The sudden decision to fire Singer, announced by Bronfman in a conference call on Wednesday night, stunned organization officials. Surprisingly, it did not include the younger Bronfman, officials in the organization said, despite his past efforts to reach a compromise between the two sides. The dispute rocking the organization - which has both Israeli and European leaders joining forces against the New York headquarters - will likely further delay the elder Bronfman's departure from the organization, after serving as president for 25 years, and hurt his son's chances in the race, an active leader in the organization said. It remained unclear exactly why Bronfman fired Singer, who had a three-decade record of service to the Jewish world but whose name was badly tarnished by a financial mismanagement scandal three years ago. An investigation by then- New York State attorney-general Eliot Spitzer focused on a series of money transfers totaling $1.2 million from New York to a Swiss account. Spitzer, who is now governor, last year barred Singer from any future connection with the "financial management, supervision or oversight of fund-raising activities" of the group, but did not find any evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Singer resigned as chairman last year, and was then appointed as chairman of the group's Policy Council, an advisory body. Over the last six months, he had refused to take sides in the battle over control of the Jerusalem office, angering organization officials in New York, Israeli WJC officials said. The group's New York office said that Singer's dismissal had not been connected to the dispute with the Israel branch, but declined to comment on just why he was dismissed at this time. A terse WJC statement Thursday confirming Singer's dismissal praised him for his work on behalf of Soviet Jewry, exposing the Nazi past of Kurt Waldheim, and securing nearly $20 billion in Holocaust restitution. Singer has declined comment on his dismissal. Isi Leibler, a former WJC vice president who has been Singer's biggest critic, said Saturday night that he hoped the dismissal would lead to new leadership in the organization. "This organization is going through a process of reform and hopefully the scandals and financial improprieties will become something of the past," Leibler said. "The New York headquarters of the WJC has barely been functioning over the last three years because it was covering up financial improprieties of Mr. Singer, trying to silence its critics, dealing with the attorney-general's report and indulging in futile and costly legal action," he said. Earlier this year, a Tel Aviv court awarded Leibler NIS 200,000 in costs after the WJC withdrew a libel suit it had previously filed against him. Singer's dismissal came as the seven-decade old organization is facing a split after a months-old dispute over control of the Israel office. Israeli and European members of the group's steering committee said Thursday that their telephone microphones were cut off during the critical international group conference call meeting Wednesday evening, in which Singer's dismissal was announced, prompting them to say they would leave the organization altogether. The New York office of the World Jewish Congress said that they had contacted the American telephone company which carried out the conference call for a complete investigation into what had transpired following the allegations that the phones had been shut off. The original dispute in the organization stemmed from the appointment of Israeli Ambassador to the European Union Oded Eran to head the WJC's Jerusalem office. The appointment was seen by members of the Israeli board as an attempt by the organization's New York-based secretary-general Stephen E. Herbits to bypass the Jerusalem office with a hand-picked appointment who will serve as his personal emissary. Herbits was originally brought to the organization by Bronfman as part of an attempt to clean up the group, following the allegations of financial mismanagement. The decisions taken at the meeting - with Bronfman siding unequivocally with Herbits and against the Jerusalem office - come just weeks after the organization had announced that a four-member committee was chosen to select a new Israel director, in a compromise move which had unequivocally endorsed the independence of the Israel office of the World Jewish Congress, but required unanimous approval for the appointment of the next Israel branch head. The decision to appoint Bronfman as a fifth member of the committee who will be authorized to appoint a new Israel director by the end of this month on his own if one was not chosen by then was seen as a victory for Eran, who had temporarily returned to his Foreign Ministry posting following the public fallout over his appointment. Eran is now due to complete his term at the end of the month. He has declined comment on the issue due to his status as a Foreign Ministry official. The New York office has called Eran "uniquely qualified" for the $250,000-a-year job. It was not clear how any Bronfman-appointed Israel director would work in Israel if the local office breaks away from the organization. The Jerusalem office of the World Jewish Congress has been listed as a non-profit organization in Israel for over 25 years. A Justice Ministry spokesman has previously said that a second company with the same name as a previously listed NGO cannot be established without the accord of that NGO.