The president of the World Jewish Congress, beverage heir Edgar Bronfman, announced Wednesday that the organization was severing all ties with his most trusted adviser during the last two decades.
During a meeting of the WJC steering committee, Bronfman announced that he had decided to end the organization’s relationship with Rabbi Israel Singer, the organization’s longtime professional head and one of the world’s most prominent Jewish communal leaders. The WJC’s current secretary general, Stephen Herbits, told the Forward: “This is something that Edgar did and informed the steering committee. It’s fair to say that many members of the steer committee were surprised.”
According to Herbits, during the meeting, which took place via conference call, “Edgar said, ‘There’s no one on this call who is sadder than I. I have treated this person like my son for 30 years.’”
Herbits declined to enumerate the reasons for Singer’s departure. “If Edgar wrote a letter to the steering committee and said for the following specific reasons I’ve made this decision, the result could be much more difficult for Singer, and he’s not looking to make life more difficult for Singer,” he said.
The move to push out Singer, along with other announcements made by Bronfman during the conference call, worsened already tense relations between Bronfman and some of the organization’s regional branches, and could end up tearing apart the WJC, one of the most storied and influential Jewish organizations of the last century. The leaders of the WJC’s Israeli and European branches both threatened to withdraw in the hours after the meeting.
“We are disgusted by what has just transpired,” wrote the head of the Israeli branch, Knesset member Shai Hermesh, and steering committee member Mati Droblas, in a letter to Bronfman soon after the conference call.
For the last two years, the WJC has been roiled by controversy over the way Bronfman and Singer have run the organization during the past two decades. With Bronfman as president and Singer as secretary general, the WJC led the Jewish community’s fight to recover billions of dollars from Swiss banks for Holocaust survivors and launched several key interfaith initiatives.
An investigation by the New York attorney general’s office found that Singer had benefited from improper loans and payments. Under an agreement reached in January 2006 between the WJC and the attorney general, Singer was barred from further positions of financial leadership within the organization. After the report, Bronfman stood by Singer and kept him on as chairman of the newly formed World Jewish Congress Policy Council.
Herbits said the reason for the decision to cut off Singer did not have “anything to do with the former set of allegations. These are things that developed separately.”
Singer declined to comment. Sources close to him said that the move to oust Singer was part of an internal power struggle.
Singer had been deeply involved in all aspects of the WJC during the past few decades, jetting around the world to represent the Jewish people in meetings with political and religious leaders.
During a wide-ranging interview, Herbits said Singer had been brilliant at dealing with a number of policy areas, including inter-faith relations.
“Singer, he was brilliant, nothing short of brilliant in that area,” Herbits said. “It’s unfortunate that he didn’t focus on it enough, to the exclusion of other things, so that perhaps he could still be doing it, but he didn’t.”
The new moves come as the struggle to succeed Bronfman as the president of the WJC has heated up. Bronfman’s son Matthew has made known his interest in the position, but he is already facing stiff competition from a number of other prominent Jewish communal leaders, including Ronald Lauder, the New York philanthropist and art collector.
As the various controversies have dragged on, the WJC’s New York-based office, once headed by Singer and now led by Herbits, has feuded with many of the organization’s branches across the globe.
In the telephone meeting on Wednesday, Bronfman announced he would be firing the longtime director of the Israeli branch, Bobby Brown, and taking greater control of operations in Israel.
After the meeting, the leaders of both the Israeli and European branches sent letters to Bronfman saying they may withdraw if Bronfman does not reconsider his decisions. The leaders of both branches, who are part of the organization’s steering committee, said they were cut off from the telephone conference and not able to register their dissent to Bronfman’s announcements.
The leaders of the Israeli branch wrote that “this conference call was not legal, since we, and possibly others, were excluded. Therefore we regard as null and void all the decisions taken during that discussion.”
Pierre Besnainou, the president of the European Jewish Congress, wrote a separate letter to Bronfman in which he said: “I was shocked when you announced and informed the WJC steering committee via telephone that you have taken the decision to fire Israel Singer after 30 years of devoted service to the Jewish cause and this without any consultation. I consider, at least, we need to get more explanation.