By ETGAR LEFKOVITS
In a war of words, the president of the European Jewish Congress said Sunday that the New York leadership of the World Jewish Congress had apparently "gone crazy," as a split in the organization appeared increasingly imminent.
The blistering remarks by European Jewish Congress President Pierre Besnainou were the latest indication that the seven-decade old organization, which has been plagued with internal wrangling, was on the brink of a historic break.
The veteran European leader said he received "one of the biggest shocks of my life" by the manner in which last week's contested steering committee conference call was held.
The meeting, which was headed by group President Edgar M. Bronfman, adopted a controversial resolution which indefinitely suspends all funding to its Israel branch, initiates an audit of the Jerusalem office over the last decade, terminates the employment of its Israel director, Bobby Brown, and appoints Bronfman to select the new head of the Jerusalem office by the end of the month if a candidate is not unanimously chosen by a previously announced committee in the next two weeks.
In a separate surprise announcement, Bronfman announced he was firing the former group chairman, Israel Singer.
"What kind of organization can be an organization when these non-democratic moves are taken without any explanation to anybody," Besnainou said in a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post from Paris. "I cannot imagine that a Jewish organization can have this kind of behavior."
Besnainou noted that after raising an initial objection to the moves his telephone connection to New York was shut off several minutes into the meeting so that he could not be heard, a complaint also raised by Israeli members of the group's steering committee.
The New York office of the World Jewish Congress has asked an American telephone company for a full investigation into the matter.
Besnainou added that a 240-page dossier compiled by the New York office of the WJC ostensibly outlining the allegations of "financial improprieties" in its Jerusalem office - which he received just hours before the critical conference call meeting - was nothing more than "a joke."
Moreover, he said he was shocked to hear Bronfman, 77, announce at the start of the meeting that he planned to remain in his position through 2009.
"Why not through 2020?" Besnainou quipped, noting that Bronfman had announced last year his intention to step down this year after a quarter century at the helm of the organization.
The election for WJC president, which has not been scheduled but could take place as early as a June meeting in Brussels, had been expected to pit Bronfman's son, Matthew, against JNF President Ronald S. Lauder in what has already been billed as "the battle of the billionaires."
"Maybe they realize that Matthew cannot become the next president and they went crazy," Besnainou said.
The New York office of the World Jewish Congress has previously said Bronfman was reelected to a full four-year term by the 2005 worldwide WJC Plenary Assembly, and that the next mandatory election must take place by January 10, 2009.
A group spokesman was not immediately available to comment Sunday.
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