In a major shake-up that follows weeks of internal turmoil, World Jewish Congress president Edgar Bronfman Sr. has pushed out two top officials and canceled his plans to retire next year.
During a leadership meeting Monday at his Manhattan, N.Y., office, Bronfman announced that he was removing WJC senior vice president Isi Leibler from the organization’s nine-person steering committee, effectively ending Leibler’s influence as a top officer.
Bronfman also terminated his senior adviser, Elan Steinberg, a former WJC executive director who helped lead the organization’s successful fight to secure Holocaust restitution from Swiss banks and several European countries. Steinberg, who is seen as a Leibler ally, declined to comment, but said he would issue a statement in two weeks.
Bronfman, who had said previously that he would retire next year, announced that he will run for a new term in a special election to be held in the coming weeks.
The shake-up is the latest in a dizzying series of events engulfing an organization that has led the fight for Holocaust restitution and was instrumental in Jewish dialogue with the Vatican. It comes weeks after Leibler called for an independent audit of the organization and raised questions about possible “financial irregularities” involving the WJC’s chairman, Israel Singer, commonly viewed as Bronfman’s chief adviser on Jewish affairs.
Singer has denied any wrongdoing, and retains the support of Bronfman and other WJC officials.
In a press release Monday, the WJC declared: “On the recommendation of all of the other members of the steering committee besides Mr. Leibler, Mr. Bronfman removed Mr. Leibler from the steering committee and asked that Mr. Leibler undertake no further activity on behalf of the World Jewish Congress.”
In response to Leibler’s questions, the organization’s new administrator, Stephen Herbits, said that the WJC is undergoing an international audit for the first time. While each WJC branch conducts its own audit, no overall audit of the entire organization has ever been conducted. A spokesman for Herbits said that the organization’s finance committee could end up calling for an independent audit if it is not satisfied with the in-house examination.
Singer and his allies have described Leibler as a destructive force, motivated by a desire to gain power and by his fierce objections to Bronfman’s dovish views on the Middle East. In the summer of 2003, Leibler called on Bronfman to resign or to end his public criticisms of Israel’s West Bank security fence and other policies. The attack led Bronfman to call for Leibler’s dismissal.
Leibler said his criticisms of WJC management under Bronfman and Singer are motivated solely by a desire for internal reform. He accused his critics of demonizing him in an effort to divert attention from legitimate governance questions. He acknowledged his past political disputes with Bronfman, but said they were dormant for much of the past year.
Leibler’s call for an independent audit was echoed this week by the organization’s longtime Geneva counsel, Daniel Lack. The Swiss attorney, who was terminated after the recent closing of the WJC office in Geneva, issued his demand for an audit in a September 19 e-mail to Herbits.
This week’s developments come as the WJC has been working to draft a new constitution and adopt new election and administrative procedures in response to questions regarding the operations of the 68-year-old organization. Bronfman alluded to the organization’s structural problems in declaring that he would seek a new term, despite his announcement in 2001 that he would step down at the end of his current term after nearly 25 years as president.
“Given the priority of moving past the turbulence of the last year and the need to take a more productive posture towards the restructuring efforts I started last year,” Bronfman said in a statement issued Monday, “I intend to call a worldwide Plenary Assembly this fall to consider recommendations on leadership, operations and policies, and I intend to stand for election to the Presidency for another term to ensure the success of this effort.”
The statement said the WJC would be voting a year earlier than the previously scheduled 2006 election date.
It was unclear this week under what conditions Bronfman might run again, since a new constitution is not yet in place. Outstanding questions included whether the presidential term would remain five years or become reduced to two years, as proposed in the draft constitution. Also unclear is whether the Plenary Assembly would be conducted under the old or new constitution. Several WJC insiders voiced strong doubts that Bronfman could pull together a worldwide assembly of WJC representatives in the next few weeks, as he promised in the statement.
“It’s impractical,” said Herbits, who was appointed by Bronfman last month to run the WJC temporarily in light of the agency’s recent problems. Herbits, whom Bronfman has described as his “right-hand” man in the business world, told the Forward he could not yet say when or where the assembly meeting would be held, but that it would likely occur sometime in 2005.
The uncertainty continues a tumultuous period for the WJC that began in October 2001 with the departure of then-executive vice president Steinberg. A 20-year WJC employee, Steinberg left months after he was passed up for the organization’s top-paid post, secretary general, which Singer relinquished to become chairman, a lay post.
In October 2003, Singer’s replacement as secretary general, Avi Beker, left after only two years of a five-year term.
Steinberg was then brought back as a senior adviser to Bronfman, reportedly as a calming measure after the Bronfman-Leibler spat regarding the security fence.
As part of the effort to settle that fight, Bronfman created a three-person operations committee, including Singer, Steinberg and Leibler, to oversee the organization’s day-to-day activities. In addition, Bronfman appointed Steinberg, Leibler and a former president of Tel Aviv University, Yoram Dinstein, to a task force on governance.
According to WJC insiders, the three men worked together smoothly for almost 10 months until this past July, when Lack alerted the committee to “financial irregularities” at the WJC. In particular he cited a $1.2 million fund that had been moved by Singer during the last two years from an account in New York, to Geneva, to Israel and then to London.
Dinstein, who has worked closely with Singer, Steinberg and Leibler and won praise from all sides, said Lack’s comments were “the root cause of the entire crisis.” Before he came forward, Dinstein said, they “cooperated very well.”
Dinstein said he believes that Leibler overreacted to the concerns raised by Lack, who lost his job recently when the WJC closed the Geneva office due to budget cuts. While voicing respect for Leibler, Dinstein said he doesn’t believe there were any financial irregularities, stressing that the $1.2 million has remained intact and was returned to WJC coffers in New York after the operations committee ordered it.
“I don’t find the matter worth looking into. It doesn’t matter,” Dinstein said.
But Leibler insisted that the concerns raised by Lack are crucial for the future of the WJC and must be addressed by an independent auditor, not by an in-house review by Herbits, as Bronfman has ordered.
Leibler, in an interview, said he “did not suggest” there was wrongdoing, but said the WJC could only “clear itself” through an audit.
Leibler said that as the WJC has evolved during the past 20 years from a nonprofit group funded almost entirely by Bronfman to one now supported mostly through direct-mail donations, the organization must operate “with accountability and transparency.”
Addressing the WJC leadership Monday, shortly before he was thrown off the steering committee, Leibler said: “Can you stand by when the umbrella organization of world Jewry, funded by the generosity of 400,000 American Jews, continues to ignore the requirements of fiscal transparency and corporate governance of a non-profit organization?”
All sides agreed that no money was missing from the $1.2 million account. Leibler maintains, and various press reports suggest, that Singer has offered multiple explanations for the fund. He has described the money as a reward from the Jewish Agency for Israel, a key partner of the WJC, in recognition of his work on behalf of the Jewish people, meant to finance his pension; he has also said that the money might be used to set up a pension plan for WJC employees, not just himself.
A Jewish Agency spokesman, quoted by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, denied the money was intended in any way as a reward to Singer. The payment, the spokesman said, was simply part of the Jewish Agency’s longtime financial support of the WJC.
This week, Singer’s spokesman, WJC deputy director Pinchas Shapiro, said, “The money in question transferred by the Jewish Agency to the WJC was transferred as part of a longstanding relationship with no expressed purposes attached to it outside of that relationship.”