While the upcoming elections for the leadership of the World Jewish Congress came about after the organization was criticized for lacking transparency, a number of newly released documents suggest that the elections are being shaped by a series of secretive backroom deals.
The most surprising result of the recent jockeying came May 30 when the front-runner, cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder, announced that he was forming a joint ticket with Matthew Bronfman, son of the current president, Edgar Bronfman. The partnership was a shock, in part because the elder Bronfman had earlier, in The New York Times, called Lauder unfit for the job while Lauder levied a similar charge against the younger Bronfman in the New York Post earlier this year.
At stake in the June 10 election is the presidency of the WJC, a federation of Jewish communities from around the world that has served as the most visible political face of the Jewish people. The leadership vote comes after a series of scandals that have rocked the organization, and follows the resignation in early May of the WJC’s longtime president, Edgar Bronfman. An heir to the Seagram fortune, Bronfman stepped down after years of being charged with running the WJC like a personal fiefdom with little transparency and insufficient financial oversight.
In comments to the press, the candidates to succeed Bronfman have called for a new start at the organization, with more openness and democratic responsiveness. But documents shared with the Forward suggest that the very men who have pushed for this fresh start have been working behind the scenes to shape the election with old strategies.
The most revealing new documents suggest that Lauder’s campaign has benefited from the hitherto unknown coordination of a former WJC official, Isi Leibler, who was the first one to raise public complaints
about Bronfman’s management style.
In one letter shared with the Forward, purportedly written by Leibler in February, Lauder’s assistant was briefed on the campaign: “It will not necessarily require Ronald’s direct involvement in the initial phase because the canvassing (if required) will be much easier after we come out to the media with Ronald’s program and have a clear strategy.”
The letter appears to have been written four months before Lauder publicly announced his campaign in May. An essay that Leibler wrote this week announced his support for Lauder in The Jerusalem Post, but his earlier role in privately planning Lauder’s candidacy was unknown. After the February correspondence, Leibler appears to have sent a number of missives to Lauder’s team with increasingly specific instructions. In one of the letters, the author, apparently Leibler, discusses a hard-hitting article in the newspaper Ha’aretz about Edgar Bronfman and his lieutenant, Rabbi Israel Singer.
“It is devastating and infinitely better than I could have hoped for,” the letter said. “The repercussions will be endless.”
The author writes that Lauder “should act immediately. I suggest a meeting either in Europe, Israel or New York as soon as possible so that we can set up the campaign.”
When shown the text of the documents, Leibler said that they appear to have been stolen from him and that certain ones appear to have been “doctored.” Leibler declined to comment on the specific contents of any of the documents, but said that in general he had been public about his support of Lauder.
“I’ve always supported Lauder, and said I would like to see him take on the job,” Leibler told the Forward. “My role, if possible, is to see this organization not sink into oblivion. That means getting people who are untainted by the past.”
Lauder is now linked intimately with a figure from the WJC’s past, Matthew Bronfman. The younger Bronfman, who has relatively little experience in Jewish communal affairs, also appears to have benefited from a hefty dose of backroom coordination, according to other new documents. In Bronfman’s case, the coordinator appears to have been Stephen Herbits, who is the WJC’s secretary general and a longtime business adviser of the Bronfman family.
Herbits was brought into the WJC by the elder Bronfman to deal with the fallout from Leibler’s complaints that the organization was not transparent enough. That resulted in a scathing report by the New York state attorney general’s office. Herbits was later elected by the WJC’s plenary assembly to lead the entire organization. Two leaked memos suggest that Herbits was quietly working to help the younger Bronfman against other members of the WJC’s leadership.
In a newly leaked memo, dated November 22, 2006, the author, who appears to be Herbits, writes, “There is a definitive set of strategies to this and it is to demonstrate that you deserve the position of President now, and offer it great promise for the future.”
Herbits’s role in Bronfman’s campaign makes the linking up with Lauder particularly unexpected. Earlier in May, when Bronfman and Lauder were competing against each other, Herbits wrote and released a report alleging that Lauder had bribed a former WJC official, which Lauder denied at the time. Herbits had posted that document on the WJC’s Web site, but this week, after the Lauder-Bronfman ticket was announced, it came to light that the pages of the document referring to Lauder had been deleted.
The blog Krum as a Bagel was the first to note the missing pages. A WJC spokesman would not comment on the issue. Lauder’s spokesman did not respond to calls for comment.
The role that Herbits has played in Bronfman’s campaign has been a point of contention before. Shai Hermesh — a member of the WJC’s 10-man steering committee and a member of the Israeli Knesset — wrote to the other members of the committee in early May, calling for an internal investigation of Herbits and Matthew Bronfman.
Among other allegations, Hermesh wrote that the WJC’s Israeli spokesman told him that “he was hired specifically to promote the candidacy of Matthew Bronfman for President, which would seem to present a clear conflict of interest on the part of Stephen Herbits.”
Herbits responded to Hermesh, denying the charges and blaming Hermesh for public relations problems in Israel.
Hermesh and a few other members of the steering committee have backed the South African, Mendel Kaplan, the only other candidate who appears to have significant support in the election. Ha’aretz reported in May that Kaplan had struck his own partnership with Matthew Bronfman. It is not clear what came of that reported deal. Neither Kaplan nor Bronfman has spoken publicly about his candidacy.
The two other announced candidates, both of them dark horses, are Einat Wilf, who represents an organization of young Jews, and Vladimir Herzberg, a Russian Israeli nuclear physicist.
The current front-runner appears to be the Lauder-Bronfman ticket, with Lauder for president and Bronfman for the chairman of the governing board. As recently as January, Lauder told the New York Post that Matthew Bronfman “doesn’t know the people. He doesn’t know the issues. This is not a monarchy.”
Lauder’s backer, Leibler, also has been a critic of the Bronfmans. However, since the partnership between Lauder and Bronfman was announced, Leibler has said the son should be judged separately from the father. Leibler told the Forward it was his understanding that the final deal between Bronfman and Lauder was struck in negotiations among Bronfman, Lauder and Herbits, the WJC secretary general.
“Of course I was in the picture — people talked to me — but I certainly was not orchestrating the deal,” Leibler said.
The level of recent negotiations appears to have been partially foreseen in last fall’s memo, which seems to have been written by Herbits. In the memo, the author discusses the many levels of resistance and strategy that Bronfman should consider. The number-one topic is “Running Mate/Ticket.”
The author also listed potential attacks on Matthew Bronfman’s campaign for the presidency, including that the position is, “ii. Not a hereditary position.” Other anticipated attacks were: “iii. Cannot buy the position,” and “iv. If it is for sale, there are others with money.”
This story "Backroom Deals Shape Fight for WJC Leadership" was written by Nathaniel Popper.