Power Vacuum Exposes Rifts in WJCongress

By Nathaniel Popper

Published May 18, 2007, issue of May 18, 2007.
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The resignation of World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman has left the influential organization in a state of chaos, with conflicting plans and statements emerging from different corners of the now headless body.

Bronfman’s departure leaves the WJC without an obvious top decision-maker at the very moment when some of the biggest questions about the organization’s future are going to be made.

The path forward is proving particularly dicey because there is now a sharp division between the WJC’s professional leadership, headquartered in New York, and its lay leadership, headed up by a 10-person steering committee. In the week since Bronfman’s resignation, these two factions have made sharply conflicting statements about who is being considered to replace the Seagram heir, who is in charge today and how any future decisions will be made.

In one of the most bizarre instances of these mixed messages, the WJC’s secretary general, Stephen Herbits, the organization’s top professional and longtime business adviser to Bronfman, issued a press release stating that cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder was one of two “declared candidates” for the presidency — a gibe at steering committee members who had earlier said that only one candidate was being considered. Herbits’s statement, however, was turned on its head when a spokesman for Lauder said that Lauder had not, in fact, declared himself a candidate and would not do so until he was sure that there was going to be a “fair election.”

“The problem here is that it’s a really Byzantine system for this election” Warren Kozak, Lauder’s spokesman, told the Forward. “I don’t think they’ve really had an election in 70 years. It’s kind of been arranged in smoke-filled backrooms in the past. I think that’s why everybody is kind of dusting off the rule book.”

The fights that drove Bronfman to resign from his post as president stemmed from complaints that the organization had little in the way of proper governance mechanisms. Bronfman brought in Herbits, a former aide to then-secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, to help along organizational reforms. Those reforms have gone in fits and starts — due to the other controversies that have enveloped the organization.

As recently as last November, Herbits wrote a memo stating that the organization still needed to work on the “adoption of a constitution,” a recommendation that was never seen through.

The steadiest decision-making body during the past two years — the steering committee — is not even mentioned in the previous constitution, which was passed in 1975. As a result, it is unclear who should take charge in the run-up to the election of Bronfman’s replacement, which is set to take place June 10TK.

In this atmosphere of confusion, most discussions of the future leadership team have proceeded by way of rumor. None of the main candidates has spoken publicly about his intentions since Bronfman’s resignation.

One rumor has it that Lauder would like to be president and to hire, as a new professional leader, Malcolm Hoenlein, currently executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations.

While Lauder has not declared his candidacy, his lawyer did write a letter to the American section of the WJC, asking it to ensure that the election proceeded according to the organization’s bylaws.

Another presidential candidate often discussed is Mendel Kaplan, the WJC’s current chairman. Kaplan held a meeting in Israel on Monday with other members of the steering committee Sources close to Kaplan say that he has talked about forming a leadership team with the son of Edgar Bronfman, Matthew, and with Pierre Besnainou, president of the European Jewish Congress and one of the most persistent critics of the WJC’s professional leadership.

One complication with Besnainou is that he is now being challenged for the presidency of the EJC by Moshe Kantor, a Russian oligarch who is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

There is currently an argument over whether the EJC vote should be held first, thereby determining whether Besnianou would take part in the WJC election.

Matthew Bronfman’s future leadership is also a point of contention.

Sources at the WJC said that Bronfman’s inclusion in the Kaplan leadership team had been made contingent on him asking for the resignation of Herbits, who has fueled the ire of many WJC lay leaders.

Shai Hermesh, a member of Knesset and head of the WJC Israel branch, said that someone needs to push out Herbits.

Something has to be done to stop him from destroying the WJC,” Hermesh told the Forward.

In a recently released memo, Herbits threw racially tinged criticism at Besnainou. “He is French. Don’t discount this. He cannot be trusted,” Herbits wrote in the November 2006 memo. A few lines later, Herbits added: “He is Tunisian. Do not discount this either. He works like an Arab.”

Immediately after Bronfman’s resignation, the WJC headquarters put out a press release stating that the steering committee, including Besnainou and Hermesh, would be responsible for nominating candidates for the presidency.

This week, however, Herbits sent out a lengthy memo detailing how the election would proceed. He made no mention of the steering committee.

Herbits’s memo builds off of WJC precedent and the 1975 constitution that he has been working to replace. In one controversial section of this week’s memo, Herbits provided a list of which people will be eligible to vote for the new president.

Herbits also put an asterisk next to the names of Besnainou and Hermesh, casting their voting eligibility into doubt, while including almost all the current professional staffers who work beneath him.

Steering committee members immediately complained that the move to include staffers was an effort to counterbalance the votes of lay leaders and was unusual for a Jewish organization. Experts in Jewish communal affairs said it was indeed unusual for workers to take part in leadership elections.

David Mersky, a professor at Brandeis University’s Jewish Professional Leadership Program, said that in his 40 years in Jewish communal life, he has never seen a Jewish organization that “allowed staff members to cast votes on any matter before the board,” aside from rare instances in which a CEO was given a vote.

Mersky said that such votes would represent a “clear conflict of interest” because the staff would thus be voting for the officers who would then decide their salaries.

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