A surprise firing last week is threatening to tear apart the World Jewish Congress and appears to have shattered one of the most powerful partnerships in Jewish communal life.
For decades, billionaire beverage mogul Edgar Bronfman and Rabbi Israel Singer were a dynamic duo, fighting global campaigns side by side while sharing a personal bond that Bronfman often described with the word “love.” But during a fractious conference call last Wednesday, Bronfman announced that he was firing Singer from the World Jewish Congress, the 75-year-old organization that the two men have run together since the 1980s.
“The end of this is absolutely clear, and there’s nothing I can do about it,” Bronfman said during the March 14 call with members of the WJC’s steering committee, according to a person who was on the call. “I do this with a very, very, very heavy heart.”
News of the sudden schism came as a shock even to many WJC insiders. However, a series of e-mails given to the Forward suggest that the breakup came after a long-simmering and intensely personal battle, stretching back months. The saga involves competing allegations of personal betrayal and financial impropriety.
In the end, Bronfman notified Singer of his termination in an e-mail only hours before it was announced to the steering committee. The e-mail ended a relationship that had long been a powerful force on the world stage, guiding the Jewish community’s interfaith dialogue with other religious groups and leading the Holocaust restitution movement that won back billions for elderly survivors.
The relationship was tested before, when both men were drawn into an investigation of the WJC finances two years ago. But when that probe, conducted by the New York attorney general’s office, ended, Bronfman expressed his full support for Singer. As recently as last month, the pair traveled to France for a private meeting with French President Jacques Chirac.
“I saw Bronfman and Singer as more than brothers — they were so close,” said Pierre Besnainou, president of the European Jewish Congress. “You know, Edgar used to finish his letters to Israel Singer with ‘I love you.’ For 30 years. What’s happened?”
The exact reasons for the split are still in dispute. In the conference call with the steering committee, Bronfman gave little explanation, but he did go into greater detail in a later letter to Besnainou.
In the March 14 letter to Besnainou, Bronfman said Singer “helped himself to cash from the WJC office, my cash.” Bronfman also alleged that Singer “was in violation of WJC policy and proper accounting” by “playing games with his hotel bill.”
“I know that’s difficult to accept. It took me many weeks of crying to find out I was so badly used by a man I used to love,” Bronfman wrote in the letter to Besnainou.
In a statement to the media, Singer denied the allegations made by Bronfman.
“I am shocked and deeply saddened that Edgar, a man with whom I have worked so closely for 30 years would go to such lengths to publicly shame both himself and me. These accusations are baseless, and I categorically deny them,” Singer said. “For over 30 years, I have given of my heart and soul to achieve the objectives of the WJC and for the benefit of the Jewish people. I will not engage in any petty or mean-spirited or valueless arguments.”
The e-mail exchange between Singer and the WJC’s New York headquarters suggests that tensions had long been simmering over questions about Singer’s loyalty to Bronfman and his son Matthew.
In the fall of last year, Bronfman began pushing for his son to succeed him as president of the WJC. There was talk of Matthew Bronfman being elected at a June meeting, but opposition to his candidacy mounted swiftly. E-mails from WJC headquarters suggest that two Bronfman family loyalists — the organization’s secretary general, Stephen Herbits, and its deputy secretary general, Pinchas Shapiro — suspected Singer of working with those who opposed the younger Bronfman.
In a curt e-mail just a few days before Singer’s firing, Shapiro asked Singer: “I thought you were supporting Matthew for June?”
The tension was heightened by a feud between the WJC’s New York headquarters and the Israeli branch. Singer was chastised for not joining in against the Israelis. In a February e-mail to Singer, Shapiro said: “Though I know we were once on the same side and working together, your opposition to [Matthew Bronfman’s] candidacy (saying one thing to him and his father and another thing to other people) and your position in the Israel fiasco has simply raised doubts in my mind about just what side you are on.”
In his responses to Shapiro’s messages, Singer stated that he was supporting Bronfman, but also insisted that he wanted to stay out of the internal politics. In one e-mail, Singer says he told New York headquarters “that I was not looking forward to more fighting and that I really wanted out of this as soon as possible.”
Whatever the cause for the eventual falling out, Bronfman’s actions last week could have significant consequences for the future of the WJC. In the same conference call in which he announced Singer’s departure, Bronfman declared that he was firing the director of the WJC’s Israeli branch, Bobby Brown, and taking firmer control of the offices in Jerusalem.
These decisions led to an immediate revolt within the organization, which is structured as a confederation of Jewish communal bodies around the world.
“Hang on, Edgar, we’ve got to discuss it,” said the third-ranking official in the WJC, Mendel Kaplan, during the call, according to a person on the call. A resident of South Africa, Kaplan added, “This is not an issue where you can tell people what the heck to do.”
“I can say what I want,” Bronfman responded. “I’m the president of this organization.”
Immediately after the call, the leaders of the WJC’s Israeli and European branches wrote to Bronfman, threatening to withdraw from the organization. The two leaders of the Israeli branch, Knesset member Shai Hermesh and Mati Droblas, wrote, “We are disgusted by what has just transpired.”
The executive board of the Israeli branch and the members of the European Jewish Congress are set to meet separately this week to discuss withdrawing from the WJC. Even for the Israelis, who are under pressure themselves from Bronfman and Herbits, the firing of Singer is a rallying cry.
“I’ve never in all my life — and I’m 63 years old — seen such brutal behavior like what Bronfman did to Singer last week,” said Hermesh, chairman of the Israeli branch. “Bronfman had the right, but that’s not the manner — that’s not the value — that’s not a relationship between humans.”
At least on the surface, the match between Singer and Bronfman was an unlikely one, given their very different backgrounds. Singer, the affable rabbi, came from a middle-class family in Queens, while Bronfman, the dapper businessman from Canada, grew up in the privilege of the Seagram’s liquor fortune.
The two first met in the 1970s, when Singer was a consultant to the WJC and Bronfman had just inherited his father’s seat as chairman of the WJC American section. The story has it that Singer became Bronfman’s religious tutor during a journey on the beverage magnate’s private jet.
In 1981 Bronfman was elected WJC president and over the next decade he worked with Singer to turn the organization into a dominant political force, taking on the Nazi past of Austrian President Kurt Waldheim and then a Catholic order that wanted to build a convent at Auschwitz. Their defining work together came in 1990s when they launched a fight on behalf of Holocaust survivors that ended with the Swiss banks agreeing to a $1.2 billion settlement.
Stuart Eizenstat, President Clinton’s deputy for Holocaust restitution, first saw the dynamic between the two men in a dinner at America’s embassy in Brussels. Eizenstat said that where Singer had ideas, Bronfman had clout, and it was a perfect complement.
“At that dinner and so many times thereafter, it was Israel completing the sentence of Edgar and vice versa,” Eizenstat told the Forward. “They were that close.”
The relationship was first tested in 2004, when they both came under fire from another WJC leader, who accused them of running the organization with little oversight and little input from the member communities in other countries. As the office of then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer began a probe, Bronfman left no doubt that he and the organizations were standing by Singer.
Herbits, the business lieutenant that Bronfman brought in to handle negotiations with Spitzer’s office, became a vocal and forceful defender of Singer. In an interview with New York magazine, Herbits, now the WJC’s secretary general, said, “If an investigation of Jewish organizational life takes place, I promise you that the last person standing will be Israel Singer.”
A report from the attorney general did find numerous instances of mismanagement at the organization, along with improper loans and payments from Bronfman to Singer. 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.
All that ended last week. In the conference call, Bronfman pointed back to the attorney general’s investigation and said that he had provided Singer with $500,000 to help with Singer’s defense, according to a person who was on the call.
“And Singer to this day owes me half a million dollars,” Bronfman said in the call. “I’ve tried everything I can do to save him. Unfortunately he was not savable.”
The recent e-mails suggest that the Bronfman-Singer pairing is not the only casualty of the recent fights. The author of most of the e-mails, Shapiro, is a man in his 20s who was hired into the WJC by Singer and has often been described as Singer’s protégé and assistant. In their e-mail exchange, though, any good will appears to slip into the past tense.
“You might remember that before you and those around decided that I was your enemy, we worked pretty well together,” Shapiro wrote in one e-mail to Singer.
Singer wrote to Shapiro in desperation: “Why are you doing this to me too? Please, please tell me why?”
This story "Ugly Allegations Fly as Fabled WJC Duo Splits" was written by Nathaniel Popper.