WJ Congress to select new leader

Lauder seen as front-runner in race against S. African steel magnate Kaplan.

lauder 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
lauder 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The New York-based World Jewish Congress will elect a new president on Sunday, attempting to turn a page in the once prominent organization which has been fraught with internal wrangling and mired in allegations of financial mismanagement. The race will pit Jewish National Fund President Ronald S. Lauder against the South African steel magnate and longtime organization official Mendel Kaplan. Lauder, who has unexpectedly teamed with Matthew Bronfman ahead of the election, is considered to be the front-runner in the race. Two other contenders, considered to be dark-horse candidates include Einat Wilf, an Israeli writer and activist, and Vladimir Herzberg, a Russian-Israeli nuclear physicist. The final days leading up to the vote were filled with backroom deals, and intense lobbying efforts. Eleventh-hour moves also included a call by a former WJC lawyer, Daniel Lack, who first drew attention to the allegations of financial mismanagement at the organization for Kaplan to resign, while documents leaked to The Jewish Daily Forward indicated that Isi Leibler, a former WJC vice president and Lauder supporter, had been actively promoting him for months. Leibler said over the weekend that he has long supported Lauder, and that the documents were taken as a result of a break-in. The term of the next president of the organization will be a shortened 18 months, through the duration of Bronfman's term, which ends in January 2009. President of the European Jewish Congress Pierre Besnainou, who had threatened to pull out of the organization if elections were not held this year, is backing Kaplan in the race, as is the head of the Israeli board of the organization MK Shai Hermesh (Kadima.) It was not immediately clear the weekend before the race whether Sunday afternoon's election would be an open or secret ballot, with the issue expected to be determined just ahead of the vote. The election comes at a time of turmoil at the small non-profit organization, best known for acquiring millions of dollars in Holocaust restitution, which is facing record-low donations amidst the continued organizational infighting and allegations of financial mismanagement. The WJC has been awash in internal turmoil and months of internecine group infighting that had threatened to split the six-decade old organization in half. The controversial secretary-general of the WJC Stephen Herbits, originally brought on board by Edgar M. Bronfman - who recently resigned after serving as WJC head for a quarter century - as part of an attempt to clean up the group following the allegations of financial mismanagement, is expected to resign from the organization immediately after the election.