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Internal Slugfest Threatens To Split International Body

The World Jewish Congress is embroiled in an internal slugfest, with top leaders exchanging charges that observers say threaten to destroy the organization.

At the center of the controversy is a memo being circulated by the organization’s senior vice president, Isi Leibler, in which he raises questions about the possibility of financial irregularities involving the WJC’s chairman, Israel Singer.

Singer is denying any wrongdoing, insisting that all questions raised by Leibler in his memo have been addressed.

Documents obtained by the Forward hours before deadline appeared to back up Singer’s defense against Leibler’s claims, but the documents could not be fully corroborated by press time.

“This is libelous and I am very seriously considering legal action,” Singer said.

Leibler insists that he is motivated by a desire to reform the WJC to ensure that the organization’s procedures and financial controls are democratic and transparent.

Leibler’s critics described him as a frustrated former Jewish communal leader in Australia looking for more power since moving to Israel several years ago. Leibler, critics say, has been a destructive force, pushing new governance structures and issuing allegations that they say will weaken the WJC’s ability to negotiate with international partners, such as Switzerland and the Vatican.

Bobby Brown, director of the WJC’s Israel branch and director of the congress’s international affairs, criticized Leibler. In an interview Wednesday, Brown told the Forward: “Certain people in an attempt to gain control, were willing to blacken the names of many leaders in the WJC, who had faithfully discharged their duties for tens of years.”

Singer and his supporters are accusing Leibler of seeking to become president of the WJC after the current president, billionaire beverage magnate and philanthropist Edgar Bronfman, steps down sometime next year. Bronfman and Singer have been strong allies in running the organization for more than a decade.

Leibler denied any interest in Bronfman’s post. “That’s absolute nonsense,” he said. In response to criticism from Singer’s camp, Leibler said: “I have a track record for the last four years of calling for accountability and for transparency.”

The line of attack against Singer threatens one of the most visible spokesmen representing the Jewish people on several fronts. Singer and Bronfman have been particularly prominent in their work with Holocaust restitution and reparations — the primary cause for which the WJC has worked in the past decade.

Through this work at the WJC, Singer became the chairman and Bronfman the president of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, the body responsible for negotiating Holocaust-era restitution pacts. Singer is also the president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

Following a public spat last summer between Leibler and Bronfman, an operations committee was established to run the organization, comprising Singer, Leibler and Elan Steinberg, a top official at the organization.

Steinberg declined to comment.

This summer, Bronfman had the operations committee disbanded and replaced with a larger steering committee, which included Leibler, Bronfman, Singer and regional leaders of the WJC, but not Steinberg.

The latest front in the Leibler-Bronfman feud, WJC insiders said, has played out in dueling memos by the two men after the creation of the new steering committee.

In an extensive memo obtained by the Forward, Leibler, a member of a special steering committee seeking to reform the WJC’s administrative practices, outlines allegations of financial irregularities that he describes as “a serious issue that must be clarified.”

The memo, addressed to WJC executives, points to a $1.2 million account in a Swiss bank under Singer’s control. No money is alleged to be missing from the account, which, Singer told the Forward, contained money that came from the Jewish Agency for Israel, a quasi-governmental Israeli organization with historic ties to the WJC.

Singer said that in recognition of his work on behalf of the Jewish people, the Jewish Agency initially placed the money in a New York account. The idea, Singer said, was to establish a fund that possibly would be used to fund his pension.

All sides agree that at the direction of the operations committee, the money was transferred in full to an account that was not under Singer’s control. A source close to Leibler stressed that no funds were missing from the account. Instead, the source added, the issue was transparency.

In his memo, Leibler wrote: “We were perplexed because Singer has never informed the Operations Committee or the Task Force of the existence of such an account.” Leibler added: “WJC personnel in Geneva were initially also unaware of it.”

Singer told the Forward that the WJC’s treasurer knew about the money transfers from the Jewish Agency and about Singer’s handling of the money.

In his memo, however, Leibler wrote that idea of the Jewish Agency transferring such funds for a pension was “particularly puzzling since Singer was never an employee of the Jewish Agency.”

Leibler also called into question Brown’s running of the Israel office.

“The office is not functioning as effectively as it should,” Libeler’s memo said. Leibler said he is concerned by what he described as Brown’s splitting time between the WJC and the Jewish Agency.

Reached at his home, Leibler said he had hoped to present his memo to the steering committee privately, before it was made public by others. “This is a very, very unpleasant situation,” he said.

Leibler’s memo comes on the heels of an August 30 memo from Bronfman to WJC leadership announcing the appointment of his longtime right-hand man in the business world, Stephen E. Herbits, to “direct the administrative affairs of the World Jewish Congress until the new constitution is fully implemented.”

Bronfman said that Herbits would in effect be the organization’s chief administrator, apparently replacing Singer and Steinberg. Bronfman said part of Herbits’s role would be to “rebut any and all attacks that have been made on the World Jewish Congress.” He also voiced strong support for Singer.

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