Israel, US branches of WJC lock horns

Exclusive: Israeli office protests unilateral appointment of new director.

oded eran wjc 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
oded eran wjc 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
The Israel branch of the New York-based World Jewish Congress (WJC) is planning to launch a public struggle against the unilateral appointment of a new head to its Israel office by the group's secretary general, who has threatened to cut off funding to the Israeli office over the dispute, officials said Thursday. The bitter internecine struggle between the New York and Jerusalem offices of the World Jewish Congress stems from the recent decision by the organization's secretary general Stephen Herbits, who is based in New York, to appoint Israeli Ambassador to the European Union Oded Eran to head the organization's Jerusalem office without consulting with the elected Israeli board of the organization on the issue. Eran, a career diplomat with four decades of foreign service, is to take up his posting at the World Jewish Congress in Jerusalem on January 1, one day after completing his tenure as Israeli ambassador to the EU. The appointment not only puts Eran on a collision course with the organization's Israel director, Bobby Brown, but is also seen by members of the Israeli board as an attempt by Herbits to unilaterally bypass the Jerusalem office from New York with a hand-picked appointment who will serve as his personal emissary. The chairman of the Israeli board of the World Jewish Congress MK Shai Hermesh (Kadima) told The Jerusalem Post that he had written to the organization's president, Edgar M. Bronfman, asking him to intercede on the issue after Herbits backtracked on a recent agreement with him over Eran's role. "Herbits has no authority to appoint the head of the Israel office," Hermesh said. "To place the responsibility of the Israel office of the World Jewish Congress on the head of a clerk of Stephen Herbits, qualified as he may be, is not acceptable," he added. Hermesh added that Herbits had threatened in an informal manner to stop funding the Jerusalem office as a result of the dispute. Citing fiscal issues, the organization has already temporarily withheld payment for this month, Hermesh said. The New York headquarters of the World Jewish Congress funds its offices around the world, including its Israel branch. "This is not the kind of press and PR that the WJC needs in Israel," Hermesh said. Hermesh said Herbits had notified local workers that Brown was fired and that he was appointing Eran in his stead, something which he said was illegal interference. He added that the Israeli board would meet on December 7 to take up the issue. Herbits did not return calls from the Post for comment. "It cannot be that the World Jewish Congress in New York will dictate to the Jerusalem office who will head the local branch," said Israeli board member Tzvi Ramot. "They will not rule us." He added that the group was going to embark on a public struggle against the "undemocratic" ways that Herbits was leading the organization. "The question is will the Israeli branch of the World Jewish Congress be the representative of the WJC in Israel or will it be led by an unelected appointed individual," Ramot said. The Israeli board of the organization is comprised of 26 members, including representatives of all Zionist political parties in the Knesset, as well as public bodies and international organizations that are headquartered in Israel. The former cochairman of the Israeli board, Yechiel Leket, said the dispute was not over the appointment of Eran per se but was a matter of principle of whether the New York office could take unilateral moves without consulting the Israeli branch. "It cannot be that New York will start ruling Israel," Leket said. The director of the Israel branch, Bobby Brown, declined comment. Eran also declined comment for this article due to his current status as a Foreign Ministry official. Eran's appointment as head of the organization in Jerusalem, which will go into effect the day after he completes his tenure as ambassador, had also raised questions of whether it violated a cooling-off period mandated by law for civil servants. A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said this week that the ministry's legal adviser has determined Eran did not require a cooling-off period between jobs, even though both positions would deal directly with the foreign ministry, since his new work would be in Israel and not in Brussels, where he is currently stationed. In the past, a former Israeli official who worked in the New York consulate, Alon Pinkas, was barred from accepting a job with the United Jewish Communities in New York immediately after his tenure due to the mandated cooling-off period. Before his current posting, Eran, 65, previously served as Israeli ambassador to Jordan. Founded in 1936, the WJC represents Jewish communities in nearly 100 countries across the world. The organization, which has recently undergone a major overhaul due to a much-publicized case of internal financial mismanagement, is known for recovering billions of dollars in restitution for Holocaust victims.