The president of the World Jewish Congress, Edgar Bronfman, resigned unexpectedly from his position Monday, ending one of the most prolific and controversial tenures in American Jewish communal leadership.
Bronfman, an heir to the Seagram liquor fortune, announced his resignation in a meeting of the WJC’s steering committee at his personal office in Manhattan. The move follows three years of internecine fighting at the WJC, which included an investigation by the New York attorney general and more recent divisions between Bronfman and the organization’s affiliates across the world. Bronfman has come under particularly heated attack since March, when he abruptly decided to fire his longtime lieutenant at the WJC, Rabbi Israel Singer.
The resignation brings an inglorious end to Bronfman’s nearly 30-year tenure at the WJC. His term as president was not scheduled to end until 2009, and as recently as last week, WJC officials said that Bronfman had no plans to resign. In March, Bronfman said he planned to stay on at the WJC until the organization’s crises were cleared up, but with his resignation this week the clouds of scandal only appear to have gathered force.
Bronfman’s resignation also appears to end the hope that he is said to have had of his son, Matthew, succeeding him as president.
A recently leaked memo suggests that for months, the WJC’s secretary general — Stephen Herbits, a longtime business adviser to the elder Bronfman — was strategizing behind the scenes to pave the way for Matthew Bronfman’s ascension. Now members of the steering committee say that the younger Bronfman is not being considering as a potential candidate.
Edgar Bronfman has declined to be interviewed. But Herbits told the Forward that Bronfman, who is 77, has been looking for an opportunity to retire. Herbits said that Bronfman’s main goal before leaving was to dispense with the controversies surrounding terminated secretary general Singer.
“Edgar Bronfman said he would stay until he cleaned up the organization,” Herbits said. “What he cleaned up was Israel Singer.”
After this week’s resignation, there were hints of satisfaction from the Bronfmans’ critics.
“This meeting was a very good meeting for me,” said Pierre Besnainou, the president of the European Jewish Congress and a leading opponent of a switchover between Bronfmans at the top.
Besnainou and other members of the WJC’s steering committee said that the most likely candidate to succeed Bronfman is Mendel Kaplan, a South African industrial magnate and communal leader who is currently the WJC’s publicity-shy chairman. The election will be held next month at the WJC’s governing board meeting, but before then the steering committee is set to choose candidates for election. Members of the steering committee said that Ronald Lauder, who was seen as a leading contender for the position, is not being considered.
Any candidate who takes over from Bronfman will face a hard road. Bronfman has been a major funder of the WJC and the organization’s fund raising has lagged during the recent crises.
Originally founded in 1936 in Geneva, the WJC is structured as a confederation of Jewish communities around the globe, though it has historically been run by a strong top executive. Bronfman revived the organization when he became president in 1979 and brought on Singer as a strategist and negotiator.
The duo first rose to prominence when they challenged the Nazi past of United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim. During the 1990s, Bronfman and Singer led the Jewish community’s fight to recover billions of dollars from Swiss banks for Holocaust survivors. Singer was long described as the strategic brains in the partnership, while Bronfman was given credit for lending his influence and his bank account.
The reputation built up by Singer and Bronfman came under fire in 2004 when a former WJC official accused the duo of running the organization like a private fiefdom. A few months later, the New York attorney general opened an investigation that eventually discovered the organization to have been run with little financial oversight. The attorney general required that Singer give up any position of financial leadership, but Bronfman stuck by Singer until the abrupt firing a couple of months ago.
Much of the anger about Singer’s firing has been directed at Herbits, a former top adviser of Bronfman’s at Seagram who was asked by Bronfman to join the WJC when the scandals erupted in 2004. Just a few days before this week’s resignation, a leaked memo put a spotlight on the abrasive tactics that Herbits has used in running the organization and supporting Bronfman’s leadership.
In one of the most inflammatory sections of the memo, which was written by Herbits but released anonymously, Herbits lashed out against Besnainou, who is a member of the steering committee.
“He is French. Don’t discount this. He cannot be trusted,” Herbits wrote in the memo to Matthew Bronfman in November 2006. A few lines later, Herbits added: “He is Tunisian. Do not discount this either. He works like an Arab.”
When the memo was first leaked last week, a spokesman for the WJC denied the memo’s existence and told The Jerusalem Post that “such remarks were never made by Mr. Herbits or any official of the WJC.”
At the steering committee meeting Monday, however, Herbits delivered a written apology to Besnainou for his comments in the memo. Asked about the apparent inconsistency, Herbits told the Forward that he had looked in his archives over the weekend and discovered that he had indeed written the memo.
In the memo, Herbits revealed that he had considered trying to merge the WJC with the American Jewish Committee, headed up by David Harris. The memo acknowledged that the AJCommittee would have the upper hand in any negotiations; it also provided a critical assessment of the competing organization, one of the most prominent Jewish groups in the world.
“[David Harris] has more money than he knows what to do with, controls the election of his board and committees, and really doesn’t have a constituency to answer to,” Herbits wrote. He went on to argue that “the underlying problem with the AJC is that David knows how to publish, run an organization well, and raise funds, but not how to achieve results. My personal sense is that it would be terrible for the Jewish world.”
The memo also shed new light on Herbits’s campaign to make Matthew Bronfman president of the WJC. Herbits has publicly positioned himself as a neutral public leader of the organization, but the memo makes it clear that behind the scenes he was setting up a battle with WJC leaders around the globe on behalf of the Bronfman family.
“There is no doubt in my mind, drawing on all my various backgrounds, that you have what it takes to be a great leader of the Jewish people,” Herbits wrote to the younger Bronfman. “If I didn’t believe, I would have left long ago.”
In the past month, Matthew Bronfman has become ensnared in a separate scandal at the Israel Discount Bank, which the Bronfman family partially owns. He was forced to resign from the bank’s board after allegations surfaced that he had acted improperly as a board member. He has denied any wrongdoing.
The younger Bronfman is not listed on the WJC Web site as a member of the WJC steering committee, but he was in attendance at the Monday meeting. Steering committee members say that he did not offer himself up as a candidate to succeed his father.
Besnainou, the European Jewish Congress leader, said that the steering committee was unified in its support for the candidacy of Kaplan. In the past, cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder has expressed interest in the position, but Besnainou said that Lauder’s candidacy is unlikely to gain any traction.
“If we are all supporting one candidate, I don’t think any other candidates will be running,” Besnainou said.
One problem going forward is that the former WJC official who initiated the melee three years ago, Isi Leibler, says that Kaplan is not a suitable replacement given his close involvement in the WJC’s past troubles.
“To survive, the WJC must have new leaders untainted by scandal who can reunite the organization and ensure that governance and financial transparency is implemented,” Leibler told the Forward. “That will not happen if the current chairman, Mendel Kaplan, becomes President. Kaplan was the principal WJC officer who defended Singer and succeeded in stifling all efforts to investigate allegations that funds had been misappropriated until the Attorney General initiated an investigation.”
Leibler is widely seen within WJC circles as backing a Lauder candidacy.