The very public meltdown of the World Jewish Congress is a tragedy of historic proportions, masquerading as low farce. An organization that once embodied the Jewish people’s epic struggle against the greatest of world evils, the WJC has now been reduced to a mockery, an ugly sideshow of nasty personal feuds, name-calling and bookkeeping scandals.
At its center is a Shakespearean drama of family loyalty and personal betrayal, as portrayed by the Three Stooges.
And when it’s over — if it ever ends — everyone will emerge a loser. No one, however, will lose more than the Jewish people, its honor and its legacy.
It seems almost pointless to recall all the reasons that the WJC matters — why it is an essential resource to the worldwide Jewish community. Still, recall them we must. Founded in 1936 by European Zionist leader Nahum Goldmann, the WJC was the first institution to mobilize world opinion against Hitler’s planned genocide. It was the first to document the threat of a Final Solution and to announce the news to an unheeding world.
After the war, the WJC negotiated and won the 1954 agreement by which Germany acknowledged its guilt to the Jewish people and agreed to pay reparations — to the tune of $40 billion.
The WJC was instrumental in the issuance of the Vatican’s 1965 “Nostra Aetate” declaration, ending the 2,000-year Christian canard of deicide. It initiated and led the 40-year dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, leading to a fundamental change in Christian-Jewish relations. It initiated and led the fight for the restitution of stolen World War II-era Jewish property, resulting in billions of dollars in funds restored to despoiled Jewish families and to devastated Jewish communities.
Through all these battles, the WJC spoke not as a lonely voice of conscience, honorable though that might be. Rather, it was the authoritative voice of world Jewry. Goldmann had taken care to ensure that the WJC was not a mere gadfly or moral voice, but the representative voice of the worldwide Jewish community, a confederation of the legally established Jewish representative bodies in dozens of countries around the world.
The weakness in the structure was America. Alone among the world’s major Jewish communities, American Jewry has no legally designated Jewish representative body. It cannot, because the Constitution forbids government recognition of any “establishment of religion.” Instead, dozens of organizations exist to represent the interests and values of the Jewish community as they and their donors see fit. American Jews have no way to speak in a single, authoritative voice. They have dozens of representative voices, but no representative.
In effect, therefore, the World Jewish Congress became the legitimate representative of all the world’s Jewish communities — except for the only one that mattered in the real world.
To paper over the flaw, the congress created a series of fictions purporting to represent American Jewry within the world body. Finally, when Edgar Bronfman was chosen as president in 1981, the central office was moved to New York, creating the appearance — if not the reality — of a world Jewish organization with roots in the United States and legitimacy throughout the world.
In fact, what was created was a permanent tension between the elected Jewish community leaders in dozens of countries, from Argentina to Australia, and a world executive in New York who was answerable to no one.
Not that it mattered, at first. Over the coming decades, Bronfman and his chief lieutenant, the brilliant strategist Israel Singer, won battle after battle on behalf of the world Jewish community. Nobody bothered to wonder how they did it.
How, then, was that legacy transformed into the farce that is today’s World Jewish Congress? To understand that, we must look back to the summer of 2003, during the height of the Palestinian intifada. That summer, Edgar Bronfman wrote a letter to President Bush — co-signed by former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger — urging close scrutiny of Israel’s planned security fence. The letter aroused the ire of an Australian-Israeli businessman, Isi Leibler, a WJC vice president who was a longtime supporter of the Israeli right.
Leibler publicly called for Bronfman’s resignation. Bronfman replied by imperiously dismissing Leibler as WJC vice president. Leibler, questioning Bronfman’s authority to dismiss him, flew to New York to read the WJC bylaws.
In the course of his studies, Leibler discovered a string of accounting and administrative flaws that seemed to indicate poor management. Singer had been running the organization the way Nahum Goldmann had taught him, the way that Levi Eshkol, Pinhas Sapir and David Ben-Gurion had been managing the Jewish people’s affairs for a century: Get the job done, then write something down.
Poor management? By current American standards, yes. Actionable under the relevant state charity laws? Apparently so, as the New York state attorney general’s office found in its 2004 investigation.
In the wake of the Leibler-inspired probes, the WJC has been placed under new management and Israel Singer has been removed from any fiscal or financial role. That should have been the end of it. But the agony goes on.
Investigations continue. Document after document is dribbled out to prove that Singer somehow cheated the Jewish people: stayed in hotels while traveling abroad, rented cars, hosted public meetings, ate meals. The documents released by various self-appointed guardians of Jewish honor are endless, but they all show the same thing: that Israel Singer traveled the world and represented the Jewish people to the best of his ability.
Someday, this farce will be ended. When it is over, many reputations will be ruined, and the Jewish people will be the poorer in its efforts to defend its honor.