WJC Dispute Focuses on Control of Jerusalem Office

By Nathaniel Popper

Published December 08, 2006, issue of December 08, 2006.

Months after emerging from a lengthy battle with one of its former leaders, the World Jewish Congress is now embroiled in a feud with its Israeli branch regarding a dispute over control of the organization’s Jerusalem office.

Members of the Israeli branch say that the New York-based secretary general of the WJC, Stephen Herbits, recently announced that he was firing the old director of the Israeli branch and appointing a new staff member. The decisions were made without input from the Israel board, according to its chairman, Shai Hermesh. Hermesh, who is also a member of the Israeli parliament, said that after he tried to fight the moves by Herbits, the New York office cut off the latest monthly grant to Jerusalem.

“There is a sense,” Hermesh said, “that blocking the grant is a sign of sanctions that Mr. Herbits is trying to impose on us in order to convince us, in a nonfriendly way, that it is better to accept his new system of governance and give up our autonomy that has existed for many years.”

Herbits declined to comment on the halted grant and said in a statement that “the Israel Branch is an independent organization.”

“The WJC Steering Committee selected Ambassador Oded Eran for a new WJC position that was created to help achieve our critical mission of educating our constituent communities around the world about the security challenges facing Israel,” Herbits said. “Ambassador Eran is uniquely qualified for this task.”

Eran is currently the Israeli ambassador to the European Union and is set to assume the new position with the WJC on New Year’s Day. The concern about the changes in Israel was first reported in The Jerusalem Post. A member of the Israeli board, Tzvi Ramot, told the Post that “it cannot be that the World Jewish Congress in New York will dictate to the Jerusalem office who will head the local branch.”

“They will not rule us,” Ramot said.

Founded in 1936, the WJC is a confederation of national Jewish communities from across the world. In recent years its activities have been led by its New York office, and particularly by its president, Seagrams heir Edgar Bronfman.

The dispute with the Israeli office comes as the WJC is emerging from a separate controversy regarding the organization’s New York-based leadership. In late 2004, one of the WJC’s former leaders accused the organization of inadequate financial oversight. The New York attorney general investigated the claims and issued a report pointing to serial mismanagement at the organization, stemming mostly from a lack of accountability.

Bronfman brought in Herbits, a former adviser at Seagrams, to help reorganize the WJC. Hermesh said that Herbits first gave an indication that he wanted to change the Israeli office when he met with its director, Bobby Brown, and offered him an incentive package to leave the organization, which Brown declined. Brown had been brought in by another top WJC leader, Rabbi Israel Singer, who was at the center of the allegations of mismanagement.

The Israeli branch is generally governed by 26 representatives from Israeli political parties and is registered as an independent charity in Jerusalem.

Hermesh says that Herbits brought up the changes with him in a personal meeting in Israel a few weeks later. According to Hermesh, in their meeting Herbits agreed that Brown could keep his position and that the new appointment, Eran, only would be a representative of the New York office in Israel. But, Hermesh said, the next day, Herbits went back on this agreement when he met with the Israeli staff and announced that Brown would be replaced by Eran.

“No one is ready to take instructions from Stephen Herbits, with all due respect,” Hermesh said. “We are not employees of Stephen Herbits. It’s an NGO that has its own autonomy.”

Hermesh has written to Bronfman in New York and asked him to intercede, but has not yet received a response.



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