Edgar Bronfman resigned Monday as president of the World Jewish Congress after years of turmoil at the organization.
Bronfman, heir to the Seagram liquor fortune, resigned at a meeting in New York of the WJC’s steering committee. Bronfman had been president of the organization since 1979. During his tenure, the organization led the Jewish community’s fight to recover billions of dollars from Swiss banks for Holocaust survivors and launched several key interfaith initiatives.
Bronfman’s successor will be elected in June, at a WJC governing board meeting in New York. At Monday’s meeting it was also announced that the WJC’s New York-based headquarters would resume normal working relations with the organization’s Israeli affiliate with which Bronfman and his supporters have sparred. The resignation caps three years of bitter internecine fighting between WJC leaders.
Likely candidates to succeed Bronfman include Mendel Kaplan, chairman of the WJC executive, and Ronald Lauder, the philanthropist and president of the Jewish National Fund. Matthew Bronfman, Edgar’s son, is not a candidate, according to several sources. Pierre Besnainou, head of the European Jewish Congress, said he backed Kaplan as Bronfman’s successor.
Bronfman’s departure comes just days after the leaking of a memorandum appearing to be from the secretary general of the World Jewish Congress, which supplied a bracingly detailed inside picture of the outsized egos and personal machinations behind the recent fissures at the WJC, one of the world’s most influential Jewish organizations.
The 10-page memorandum purports to be from WJC secretary general, Stephen Herbits, a former right-hand man to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who came to the WJC three years ago as a close confidante of Bronfman. The letter was addressed to Bronfman’s son, Matthew, who, at the time of the memo, in November 2006, had begun to be discussed as a potential successor to his father.
The memorandum suggested that while Herbits was publicly positioning himself as a neutral professional leader of the WJC, behind the scenes he was setting up a battle with WJC leaders around the globe on behalf of Matthew Bronfman. In one of the most inflammatory sections of the memo, the author, apparently Herbits, lashes out against one of the main opponents of Bronfman’s candidacy, Pierre Besnainou, the head of the European Jewish Congress.
“He is French. Don’t discount this. He cannot be trusted,” the memo stated. A few lines later the author adds: “He is Tunisian. Do not discount this either. He works like an Arab.”
Besnainou’s office at the European Jewish Congress released a statement condemning the remarks as a “vicious personal attack” against Besnainou.
The memorandum was e-mailed to the Forward by a source who declined to identify himself. The memo was first reported in the Jerusalem Post, which said that it received the memo from offices at the Israel Discount Bank, in which the Bronfman family has an ownership stake.
A WJC spokesman told the Jerusalem Post, “such remarks were never made by Mr. Herbits or any official of the WJC.” Later, though, when the Forward contacted the WJC, a spokesman would neither confirm nor deny the authenticity of the memorandum and said the organization would not comment on it.
The leak this week of the six-month-old memo comes just a few days before a meeting, set for this Monday, of the WJC’s steering committee, where Besnainou and other top leaders of the organization are going to discuss the future of the WJC leadership.
While the memo is months old, it opens up a new view on the fissures that have rocked the WJC over the last few months. The WJC’s New York offices, led by Herbits, have been drawn into increasingly public fights with both the Israeli and European branches of the organization. In the most extreme, and unexpected maneuver, last month WJC president Edgar Bronfman fired his long-time top lieutenant at the WJC, Rabbi Israel Singer.
At the time of Singer’s firing, documents acquired by the Forward suggested that Matthew Bronfman’s candidacy had been an issue, but Herbits and Bronfman said that Singer was fired solely due to newly discovered financial irregularities. The new e-mail suggests that Herbits was already looking skeptically at Singer in November due to his lack of clear support for the transition to a Matthew Bronfman presidency.
“The issue is whether [Singer] will honestly support the transition, play on all sides, or even oppose through proxies — although it is hard to imagine why he would do the last of those,” the memo said.
Singer and the WJC were the subject of an investigation by the New York attorney general in 2004, which caused earlier divisions within the organization. A final report from the attorney general faulted Singer’s financial governance of the organization. Until Singer was fired two months ago, Herbits and the rest of the WJC leadership stood behind Singer. The memo suggests that long before the firing, Herbits was unhappy with Singer’s place in the organization.
In a section titled, “Taint of Singer,” the memo stated that the rabbi’s continuing association with the WJC “affects credibility with many senior government leaders who are not interested in dealing with him; it affects our fundraising from many potential high donors; it affects our media relations.”
The memo also suggested that the earlier scandals could have been avoided had Edgar Bronfman done more to supervise the organization.
“You know painfully well what happens when a leader does not adequately supervise his business or charitable staffs,” the memo stated.
As the memo addresses these various issues, the author indicated that his primary goal in writing the document is to help Matthew Bronfman take over the presidency of the WJC.
“There is no doubt in my mind, drawing on all my various backgrounds, that you have what it takes to be a great leader of the Jewish people,” the author wrote. “If I didn’t believe, I would have left long ago.”
The memo provided the younger Bronfman with a number of different strategies for taking over the organization. The first is “Engage, fight and win.”
In the most surprising strategy, the author revealed that he has considered trying to merge the WJC with the American Jewish Committee, headed up by David Harris. The memo acknowledged that the AJC would have the upper hand in any negotiations; it also provided a critical assessment of the competing organization, one of the most prominent Jewish groups in the world.
“[David Harris] has more money than he knows what to do with, controls the election of his board and committees, and really doesn’t have a constituency to answer to,” the memo stated. It went on to argue that “the underlying problem with the AJC is that David knows how to publish, run an organization well, and raise funds, but not how to achieve results. My personal sense is that it would be terrible for the Jewish world.”
Harris and the American Jewish Committee could not be reached for comment.
The final section of the memo explored the possibility that the WJC presidency might not at this time be the right fit for Bronfman, given his family and business commitments.
“Is this really a time in your life for the time commitment needed to secure this job against an attack or competition?” the memo asked.
With reporting by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency