WJC Looks to Cosmetics Heir for Image Makeover

By Nathaniel Popper

Published June 13, 2007, issue of June 15, 2007.
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Bigwigs from six continents gathered in New York last weekend to elect Ronald Lauder the new president of the World Jewish Congress.

The vote took place Sunday in midtown Manhattan, just above the Puerto Rican Day Parade, and brought together an unusual collection of top representatives from most of the largest Jewish communities in the world. The delegates chose Lauder, a cosmetics heir, over a South African communal leader, Mendel Kaplan, after the other candidate, Einat Wilf, a young upstart, unexpectedly withdrew her candidacy before the final vote.

The election came after three years of infighting at the WJC, which crippled the organization and led Edgar Bronfman to resign as president last month. In his comments to the participants, Bronfman said, “We find ourselves at a low ebb.”

As the delegates filed in, most of them bleary-eyed from overnight flights, there was palpable anxiety over how the battles of the past few years would work themselves out — and the event began with a few revealing scuffles and verbal sparring matches. But after the results were in — Lauder, 59; Kaplan 17 — the main emotion in the room appeared to be relief.

“For the last three years, the World Jewish Congress did not exist, politically,” said Pinchas Goldschmidt, chief rabbi of Moscow. “It stopped being a voice. I hope now it can start again.”

One sign of the new start came immediately after the meeting, when the WJC’s controversial secretary general, Stephen Herbits, submitted his resignation to Lauder. (Lauder announced Monday that Herbits would step down after helping with the transition to a new secretary general.)

Lauder won the election after forging a last-minute pairing with Edgar Bronfman’s son, Matthew, who ran unopposed for the office of WJC chairman and took the post without ever speaking publicly about his candidacy. Lauder has spent much of the past decade heading the Jewish National Fund and logging a stint as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The election this week came after years of criticism that the organization both lacked financial oversight and was being run by a small coterie of American men. While the vote appeared to calm tensions in the organization, some delegates grumbled in the hallways that none of the candidates offered a fresh start for the beleagured organization.

“We had a very small choice,” said Josef Zissels, who was the lone delegate from Ukraine. “In the end, Lauder was younger, and we thought the WJC should stay in the U.S., so we chose him.”

Daniel Turk the representative from Japan, said, “Obviously a Lauder-Bronfman ticket is more continuity than fresh start, but continuity is not such a bad thing.”

Some of the most exciting moments came at the very beginning of the meeting. In the opening discussion about how the vote should proceed, Pierre Besnainou the head of the European Jewish Congress and a backer of Mendel Kaplan, said that a different set of procedures had been discussed by members of the WJC’s executive committee. Before Besnainou could finish, Edgar Bronfman, sitting a few seats down, turned and yelled, “No, we didn’t.”

When that tussle was ironed out, the head of the Russian Jewish Congress, Moshe Kantor, stepped to the lectern. Just moments after arriving, Kantor announced that he would leave the room in protest of Besnainou’s recent insult of a Russian rabbi a few weeks back. Kantor, who is seeking to oust Besnainou from the European Jewish Congress presidency, walked out to a mixture of applause and laughter.

Even Edgar Bronfman created some controversy. When he stood up to talk, he acknowledged that the elections were a sign of the family-run nature of the Jewish organizational world.

“I don’t want anyone to accuse me of nepotism; after all, Ronald Lauder is not my son,” Bronfman joked.

After his crack, Bronfman spent much of his talk praising his son’s candidacy, and talking about the work that Matthew had done in pushing the family’s investments toward Israeli companies. This plug for Matthew Bronfman did not go over well with some delegates.

“I was pretty much appalled by the fact that Edgar Bronfman, in his valedictory address, made comments favoring one candidate over the other,” said Paul Edlin, one of two delegates from the Board of Deputies of British Jews. “That would not be allowed in a healthy democratic process.”

Bronfman lost his way at a number of points during the speech and stumbled through some lines, but he drew a standing ovation after some bittersweet closing lines.

“This is a sad day for me as well as a happy day, because any time you have a landmark and you push through something, that means you’re getting closer to the end,” Bronfman said. “I leave you with a smile, because I love you all.”

After Bronfman, the candidates took the stage one at a time. Leading off was Wilf, the 36-year-old Israeli who had called for a new generation to take over at Jewish organizations. She began on a confrontational note, saying: “We all know there is a crisis in leadership in the Jewish world. We all ask, ‘Is this the best we can do?’”

But Wilf closed by announcing that she was withdrawing her candidacy. Afterward, she told the Forward that she had chosen to bow out after receiving pressure from other delegates and determining that she did not want to prevent the winner from securing a convincing majority. Wilf also said that she had talked with Lauder about working with his administration.

The longest speech came from Lauder, who opened on an off note with a coy smile and a few words for Wilf.

“My mother taught me never to speak after a rabbi or politicians,” Lauder said. “She never mentioned anything about a beautiful woman.”

Lauder paused, but the apparent punch line drew no laughs, only a few gasps.

The cosmetics heir proceeded to talk about how, after a childhood during which he went to synagogue only three times a year, he had come to care about Jewish affairs during his stint in the 1980s as America’s ambassador to Austria. He also highlighted the work his foundation has done in supporting Jewish education in Eastern Europe. With all the talk of the past, he dedicated little time to his concrete ideas for the WJC’s future.

The final speech belonged to Kaplan, the most recent chairman of the WJC’s governing board. Kaplan had not given any previous public indication of why he was running, and the place that had been reserved for his campaign literature was left empty. But in his Sunday speech, Kaplan detailed a three-point plan for the WJC that included a new constitution, new operating procedures and a serious programmatic platform.

The lopsided vote against Kaplan ended up breaking down into a few big blocs. Every delegate from Eastern Europe voted for Lauder, while most of the delegates from Israel voted for Kaplan (the exceptions were with delegates from the Likud party, whose chief, Benjamin Netanyahu, is close to Lauder). Most of the American delegates went for Lauder, while the European and Latin American voters were more divided. Britain’s two delegates split, and one of them said that this indicated a lack of enthusiasm about the candidates.

“I think, to be honest, both candidates, were not — well, there was a certain amount of ambivalence,” Edlin said.

Most of the delegates, though, supplied a more cheerful reading of the proceedings. The head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Charlotte Knobloch, said: “We need a person who can open doors all over the world, including the United States. Lauder can do that.”

Perhaps the most significant statement of support came from Shai Hermesh, head of the Israeli branch. Hermesh has been at war with the WJC administration for most of the past year, causing major legal headaches on both sides.

“I think Ronald Lauder is convinced that he should start from the beginning,” Hermesh told the Forward. “Lauder has promised us a change.”

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