WJC Sees Opposition Grow Over Lawsuit

By Nathaniel Popper

Published June 16, 2006, issue of June 16, 2006.
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After weathering an investigation by the New York attorney general’s office, the World Jewish Congress soon may confront a political campaign led by a former British Member of Parliament.

The ex-parliament member and current Jewish activist, Eric Moonman, told the Forward he will begin organizing a campaign against the WJC — drawing together American and British politicians — if it does not drop a controversial libel lawsuit against Isi Leibler, a whistleblower who sparked the New York State investigation of the organization. In an opinion editorial in the London Jewish News last week, Moonman wrote, “A vendetta is being played out which will inevitably have serious and tragic consequences for all the parties concerned.”

Moonman, president of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain, joins a growing chorus of critics who want the WJC — a confederation of national Jewish organizations from around the globe — to drop its lawsuit against Leibler, a former vice president of the organization. In February, the Australian Jewish community condemned the lawsuit as an effort to silence legitimate criticism. More recently, Jewish leaders in Switzerland, France and Britain separately have expressed concern about the lawsuit.

The flap is the latest in a series of controversies that have plagued the WJC, a lead player in maintaining Jewish ties with the Vatican and in fighting for Holocaust restitution and reparations.

The controversy over the lawsuit comes as the WJC is attempting to portray itself as an organization that has undertaken significant management reforms aimed at making it more responsive to its member communities.

The WJC’s secretary-general, Stephen Herbits, has said that the organization would be willing to settle the lawsuit if Leibler pays for the damages he is alleged to have caused the global federation. Herbits has been adamant that the suit is not being paid for with money raised by the public, but is instead bolstered by a legal defense fund set up by the WJC’s foundation.

“We look forward to finally putting this matter to rest one way or another,” Herbits said in a statement.

Leibler began criticizing the organization in 2004, focusing on a series of questionable financial transfers made from the WJC’s Swiss bank account. The criticism sparked an investigation of the congress’s financial management by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. Though the attorney general’s final report pointed to widespread mismanagement at the WJC, it said there had been no criminal activity.

Since the attorney general’s office released its report, the WJC has taken steps to revamp its international profile. Israel Singer, the WJC official who received the most criticism from the attorney general, has helped launch a campaign to denounce Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Singer is in discussions with the Vatican to organize interfaith talks involving Jews, Catholics and Muslims.

The same day that the attorney general’s report was released, the WJC filed its lawsuit against Leibler in an Israeli court, requesting about $6 million in damages.

Leibler’s former home community in Australia (he now lives in Israel) has mobilized the opposition to the suit. The Executive Council of Australian Jewry declared in February that it would withdraw from the WJC if the lawsuit was not dropped. Herbits flew to Australia last month to explain the reasons for the suit. Afterward, however, the Australians only redoubled their opposition.

In a second resolution, the council declared that it would “withdraw its membership of and disaffiliate from the WJC effective 25 July 2006 unless, by that time, the WJC has discontinued the lawsuit.” That date immediately follows the next scheduled meeting of the WJC’s steering committee.

Herbits has said that the WJC’s steering committee was the body that approved the lawsuit, but even this has also become a matter of contention. He told the Australians that the lawsuit was approved by a full meeting of the steering committee, which includes the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Ze’ev Bielski. But a lawyer for the Jewish Agency, which is a quasi-governmental body charged with facilitating immigration to Israel, has written a letter to Leibler, stating that the organization “wishes to make it clear that as a body it had no part in the filing of the lawsuit against you and that [Bielski] was not a participant in any meeting which dealt with that issue.”

Although the Australians were alone in their opposition to the lawsuit for a few months, in early May the Swiss affiliate of the WJC passed its own resolution declaring opposition.

At the same time as the Swiss resolution, Roger Cukierman, head of the French Jewish community and a senior vice president of the WJC, wrote to Herbits and Singer expressing his worries.

“I wish you to know that I regret that the painful legal process goes on with the libel suit against Mr. Leibler,” Cukierman said. In the letter, which was released by the WJC and not by Cukierman, the French Jewish leader added, “I think it would be time to concentrate on the future of the organization and to put an end to lawyers’ enrichment.”

The most strenuous debate, though, has occurred in England, after months of silence on the issue. Last month, both Herbits and Leibler made appearances before the Board of Deputies of British Jews — the governing body of the country’s recognized Jewish community –– and the WJC’s British affiliate. After the meeting, the board’s executive committee did not take sides, but it did declare a desire to help settle the dispute.

“The dispute is not a good thing for the organizations, the people involved or Jewish organizations around the world,” John Benjamin, the board’s chief executive, told the Forward.

That position only sparked more controversy. In Britain’s biggest Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, a columnist called for the Board of Deputies to take action on behalf of Leibler. Moonman, a former Parliament member, made a similar appeal in the London Jewish News. He has set a deadline of Rosh Hashanah, in September, for the suit to be withdrawn before he launches his campaign.

The Chronicle’s columnist, Geoffrey Alderman, says that based on his conversations with British Jewish leaders, this is not an issue that will go away on its own.

“This has at last become a subject of discussion,” Alderman said. “There is a certain unease now.”

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