Spotlight Now on Bronfman Lieutenant

By Nathaniel Popper

Published May 11, 2007, issue of May 11, 2007.
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With Edgar Bronfman resigning as president of the World Jewish Congress, his critics have now directed much of their ire at the organization’s secretary general, Stephen Herbits.

Herbits was brought in by Bronfman to fix the organization, but shows no signs of leaving voluntarily with his patron.

The WJC secretary general drew a fresh round of criticism just hours after Bronfman’s resignation, when he released two lengthy memos levying serious allegations against some of the foes he has made during his brief tenure at the WJC. One memo makes allegations about the WJC’s former secretary general, Israel Singer, while the other takes on alleged misdeeds at the organization’s Israeli affiliate.

Members of the steering committee reacted with outrage upon learning that Herbits had posted the documents on the WJC’s official Web site. At a meeting Monday, before Herbits released the documents, the WJC steering committee had agreed that the issues surrounding Singer would no longer be a subject for discussion.

“That was totally unacceptable,” said Pierre Besnainou, president of the European Jewish Congress, when asked about the memos released by Herbits. “We had an agreement. We signed a document — and the point was clearly that we have decided to remove the Israel Singer issue from the agenda.”

WJC sources have said the steering committee is organizing a meeting where it will consider whether to demand Herbits’s resignation. The head of the Israeli branch, Shai Hermesh, wrote a letter to the board of the Israeli branch explaining these plans. He told the Forward that Herbits, “should have resigned a long time ago. All along the way, he has created only conflict, fighting and wasting of money — breaking any rules, breaking any relationships.”

Herbits responded to Hermesh by writing his own letter to the Israeli branch, accusing Hermesh of being the first to speak to the press about the Monday meeting.

Herbits told the Forward that he was elected by the WJC’s plenary body and has no plans to resign. A one-time confidant of former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, Herbits has developed a reputation for cracking heads to enforce discipline. Herbits told the Forward that he decided to post the documents on the WJC Web site in the interest of transparency.

Even if Herbits is forced to leave the WJC, the documents could have a long-term effect because they allege, for the first time, that a settlement between the WJC and the Office of the New York Attorney General has been broken numerous times. The attorney general’s office investigated the WJC in 2005 and ended the probe with a settlement that barred Singer from any position of financial decision-making at the organization.

Herbits was the one who signed the settlement with the attorney general. In the recently released memos, Herbits alleges that Singer and the Israeli branch broke the terms of the settlement behind his back, and that the new information “may mean that [the New York State attorney general’s] findings and Assurance of Discontinuance are based on false statements and incomplete and inaccurate information.”

Herbits said that he has already passed along the new information to the attorney general’s office. The office has not returned calls seeking comment.

Among the allegations in the 70-page report are claims that Singer improperly paid some of his hotel bills during recent WJC visits to Israel and that he used organization funds to pay for personal expenses. Herbits also alleged that Singer might have taken bribes from another Jewish communal leader who wanted to secure Singer’s support — though the memo presented no evidence for this claim, and Herbits told the Forward that it was a “suggestion, made to us in good faith.”

Singer released a statement refuting Herbits’s memos.

“There are no new allegations in these documents,” Singer said in the statement. “All of these allegations are either unsupported by evidence or were covered by the attorney general’s investigation. It seems clear Mr. Herbits is trying to deflect attention from the condition he created which resulted in recent unexpected events at the Congress.”

Hermesh said he believed that Herbits had posted the documents out of anger after the steering committee refused to look at the them during its meeting.

“He put it on the table, and no one wanted to read even one page. No one believes him anymore,” Hermesh said. “This was Herbits’s destructive side, to publish these books.”

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