WJC faces split over control of Israel office

Group's Israeli, European leaders say mikes cut off during critical conference call

The New York-based World Jewish Congress is expected to split after a blistering, months-old internecine struggle over control of its Jerusalem office, officials in the organization said Thursday. The bitter debate over who would run the group's Israel branch hit a new peak late Wednesday when Israeli and European members of the group's steering committee said that their telephone microphones were cut off during a critical international group conference call meeting, prompting them to say they would leave the organization altogether. 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, the organization also decided to fire longtime organization official Israel Singer, the World Jewish Congress said. The moves, coming on the heels of the six-month struggle over control of the Jerusalem office in an organization long plagued by internal wrangling, prompted European and Israeli leaders to warn they would pull out of the organization if the proposed resolution went ahead. "At the beginning of the conference call we registered our participation, but after a few minutes we were shocked to discover that under strange circumstances we were disconnected from the microphone... In other words, this conference call was not legal, since we, and others, were excluded. Therefore we regard as null and void all the decisions taken during that discussion," the head of the Israeli board of the WJC MK Shai Hermesh (Kadima) and Steering Committee member Mati Droblas wrote Bronfman in a letter immediately after the Wednesday conference call meeting. "If our demand for a [new] steering committee [meeting] is not accepted, than a motion with our executive will be raised to withdraw from the WJC, because it will no longer be the home in which we have invested our heart and soul. "What was done this evening is a disgrace to any organization that calls itself 'Jewish,' the letter concluded. A similar letter was sent to New York late Wednesday by a top European leader of the organization. "My microphone was cut off after a few minutes and I could only listen but not talk and be heard," the President of the European Jewish Congress Pierre Besnainou wrote Bronfman. "What seems to be a technical problem apparently occurred as well with some of our Israeli counterparts which is regrettable," Besnainou wrote. Besnainou urged Bronfman, in light of the telephone occurrence, not to take any major decisions except for the audit of the Jerusalem office. "In case my recommendation will not be follow, [sic] after consulting with the Executive of the EJC, and based on a collegial decision, we may consider to withdraw temporarily the EJC affiliation to the WJC," he wrote. Copies of both letters were obtained Thursday by The Jerusalem Post. The New York office of the World Jewish Congress said Thursday in response to a Post query that it did not know that any microphones were shut off during the conference call. "When the WJC first learned of the allegations, the WJC contacted [the] Verizon [telephone company] and asked them to conduct and complete an investigation into the matter and to provide the WJC with a written report of what transpired," the group said in a written statement. "If anyone was having difficulty during the conference call they could have contacted the Verizon operator to correct the problem, or Mr. Bronfman's office. No one from Israel contacted Mr. Bronfman's office." The New York office added that "with a quorum present and voting," the World Jewish Congress Steering Committee adopted the proposed resolution. The original dispute in the organization stemmed from the appointment of Israeli Ambassador to the European Union Oded Eran to head the Jerusalem office of the World Jewish Congress. 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 by-pass the Jerusalem office with a hand-picked appointment who will serve as his personal emissary.