World Jewish Congress seeks a new beginning

Amid leadership elections, organization touts youth involvement, new "rule of law."

wjc 88 (photo credit: Courtesty)
wjc 88
(photo credit: Courtesty)
It's been a rough few years for the World Jewish Congress. Allegations of financial mismanagement, investigations, audits and charges of corruption and cronyism have sent the prestige of the once-vaunted organization crashing. Now under a new leadership - liquor magnate Edgar Bronfman was replaced in June 2007 by cosmetics heir Ron Lauder as the group's president - the organization is hard at work rehabilitating its image and influence. At Monday's 13th Plenary Assembly of the WJC, it will hold its first truly competitive elections for the organization's top positions. Little competition is expected for the top spot - only longshot outsider Vladimir Herzberg from Beersheba is even running against Lauder - but competition has reportedly heated up for the next slots, the chairmanship of the board of governors and the vice presidency. The intensity of the race is easy enough to see: This election comes complete with a smear campaign. Supporters of Eduardo Elsztain, an Argentinean real estate magnate and candidate for board chairman, are hard at work badmouthing his rival, Kazakh minerals tycoon and Euro-Asian Jewish Congress chairman Alexander Mashkevitch, over an eight-year-old legal proceeding in Belgium against him. The mainly ceremonial position of vice president has garnered some 20 candidates. Besides a new spirit of competition among the oligarchs, the organization is also seeing a new focus on young activists. To encourage the inclusion of young people in the delegations from some 60 countries, the WJC has decided that communities can include young members without their counting toward each community's delegate quota. "Renewal means getting young people to begin to take part and take responsibility for the problems and opportunities faced by the Jewish people worldwide," says Michael Schneider, the WJC's secretary-general and a former head of the JDC. As its chief executive, Schneider is the force spearheading the organization's rehabilitation. WJC officials also speak proudly of a new "rule of law," with a new constitution replacing the 1975 document that, "in fact, was ignored over the last 25 years." The new constitution mandates a higher level of transparency and accountability, incorporating checks and balances among the power centers of the organization. According to Schneider, "we're no longer owned by one individual who is the ruler of the WJC. We will have a much more active chairman of the Board of Governors. We're also officially forming a policy council," which will work independently of the WJC's other leadership centers. Some of the organization's detractors question whom the group, which bills itself as "the leading Jewish organization in the world," actually represents. American Jewry, comprising up to 80 percent of the Diaspora, is organized bottom-up in a myriad of free-associating institutions that change dramatically as the Jewish community itself changes. To the question of who speaks for US Jewry, the answer is certainly not the WJC. Outside the United States, however, most communities are organized in top-down umbrella organizations that are the state-recognized representatives of the Jewish community, often acting as the recipients of state funds for communal institutions. Sometimes the Jewish leadership is even partially appointed by the national government. For such communities, and dozens of tiny clusters of organized Jewish life elsewhere, the WJC has a significance, say organization officials. It is the recognized representative of the combined communities, giving it some influence particularly in many European and Latin American capitals. It is that influence that the organization hopes to regain through a better organization, governance and image than it has had in the past few years. "Many of the 400 delegates are coming from small countries where Jews are weak. In some places they feel fear or trepidation," says Schneider. "Belonging to a world Jewish club, no matter how small they are, gives them some sense of security." But the organization is not just a support group, he says. It seeks to be "a vehicle in 80 countries that can take action and fight the fights of the Jewish people. The WJC franchise is an important one, in my opinion. Everyone knows we've had some bad years that kept us down. We're over that now."