New WJC Spat as Official Rejects Brown

By Elli Wohlgelernter

Published November 28, 2003, issue of November 28, 2003.
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JERUSALEM – Controversy is exploding yet again at the World Jewish Congress, an organization that has been wracked by internal feuding.

In the latest twist, the co-chairman of the WJC’s Jerusalem branch is declaring he is furious over the naming two weeks ago of a new director to head his organization’s Jerusalem office, and has vowed to fight the appointment until the end.

Yehiel Leket, who is also world chairman of the Jewish National Fund, said the announcement by the WJC New York office naming Bobby Brown — first reported in the Forward — was a directive he would not accept.

“New York cannot dictate to Israel whom to accept as the director for Israel, and [WJC Israel chairman] Matti [Drobles] and myself and all the board are opposing this nomination,” Leket told the Forward. “We explained to them that he won’t get our permission to use the offices here in Israel in case they will nominate him. Our position is the legal powers to operate here are in our hands and not in New York.”

Leket’s pronouncement was only the latest acrimony in what is turning into a protracted war at WJC. In August, the WJC’s president, Edgar Bronfman, and its senior vice president, Isi Leibler, got into an ugly, public squabble, when Bronfman co-signed a letter with former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger to President Bush, urging him to exert pressure on Israel to follow the road map peace plan. The two men traded epithets in the press, with Leibler calling Bronfman’s letter “obscene” and “an act of perfidy,” and Bronfman calling Leibler “damaged,” “a right-wing dog” and “an arrogant twit.”

The organization, an international umbrella federation representing 88 communities, serves as a diplomatic arm to world governments and international organizations. Active in international diplomacy as well as in public international advocacy, the WJC led the fight against the Swiss government to investigate the fate of dormant Jewish-owned accounts in Swiss banks. Bronfman, WJC president, is expected to step down in 2005 after 24 years at the helm of the organization.

The feud ultimately set in motion a task force to reconstitute and restructure the organization. The three-man task force is headed by Yoram Dinstein, a former president of Tel Aviv University; Leibler and Elan Steinberg, a senior adviser of the WJC.

Steinberg, for his part, said there is no disagreement between the New York office and the Israeli office.

“The director of the [Israeli] branch will be appointed by the branch chairman in collaboration with the central body,” Steinberg said. “This is to say, if Mr. Drobles, who is the chairman, opposes any individual and says, ‘I will not accept that individual,’ we will not appoint that individual. I don’t know why Mr. Leket is harboring any other illusions. On the other hand, Mr. Drobles has not proposed another name, and he has told me quite openly that he supports Mr. Brown.”

Drobles would not tell the Forward where he stands on the issue, saying only that that the issue “is in discussion,” and that Brown, former adviser to prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and current adviser to Jewish Agency chairman Sallai Meridor, “is a very good man.”

Leket blasted the task force, as well as the WJC, as being undemocratic. The task force, he said, should have had representatives of the presidents of all the major communities under the WJC umbrella, “and not only with one prominent professor and two other people who have been involved deeply in all the internal fights and conflicts of interests, to find a way to reconcile between themselves and the mutual accusations that they had in order to create something that they may think will fit their own interest.”

The WJC as a whole, Leket said, “is the most undemocratic organization among Jewish organizations in the world. And the time has come, in our day after so many years, to make a change.”

Steinberg said he was surprised to hear such comments from Leket, but that at the December 16 executive committee meeting in New York, Leket “will have every opportunity to explain why after 20 years of participation in the World Jewish Congress, he suddenly has come to the realization it’s an undemocratic body. I hadn’t heard him say this in over two decades.”

At the meeting, Dinstein is expected to present an initial report on his findings on where the WJC stands, at which point “the executive board will then determine what the next step in the role of the task force is,” Steinberg said.

Saying “we have nothing against Bobby Brown personally,” Leket nevertheless argued that “it’s illogical and unheard of that in the middle of reshaping the World Jewish Congress, we are taking new people into positions that might be abolished. We don’t need it.”

Leibler said that while he is “delighted that after 20 years Leket is supporting our moves to democratize the WJC — I wish he would have supported me years ago when I started this — nothing will be done without the full democratic endorsement of the entire executive.”

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