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World Jewish Congress´ future unclear

Elan Steinberg, left, is stepping down as executive director after 27 years with the World Jewish Congress. (Toby Axelrod)

Elan Steinberg, left, is stepping down as executive director after 27 years with the World Jewish Congress. (Toby Axelrod)

NEW YORK, Dec. 27 (JTA) — The World Jewish Congress, the aggressive international organization that led the multibillion-dollar fight for Holocaust restitution, is undergoing dramatic changes that raise questions about the future of the group, its mission, and where its seat of power will be located. For the first time in its 60-year history the post of secretary-general — the top paid position — will be based in Jerusalem. Current New York-based Secretary-General Israel Singer is stepping down from the post he has held for the last 15 years. His deputy, Elan Steinberg, who as WJC executive director was the second-ranking paid professional, is leaving the group after 27 years because, according to sources, he was not tapped to replace Singer. (Steinberg denies this.) With billionaire Jewish philanthropist Edgar Bronfman, who has been WJC president for the last 20 years, the trio has taken on Swiss banks, the Vatican, the German government and former Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, on Holocaust-related issues of restitution and the role of the Catholic Church during World War II. But Bronfman, 72, who in October was elected to a fifth five-year term as WJC president, has said he intends to step down in the next two years, according to several WJC officials. Bronfman originally had decided not to run again, said several WJC sources, speaking on condition of anonymity. They said Bronfman was persuaded to seek a new term in order to block the potential candidacy of fellow billionaire Ronald Lauder, the cosmetics heir and president of the Jewish National Fund who was lobbying to become the next WJC president. The sources said Bronfman and some other top WJC officials did not feel Lauder would be able to complete to their satisfaction the Holocaust restitution projects that Bronfman began. "It´s pretty clear he [Bronfman] did not want to entrust this with Lauder," said a source who requested anonymity. Neither Bronfman nor Lauder could be reached for comment. Singer declined to discuss the matter. Meanwhile, the man elected to replace Singer, Avi Beker, WJC´s director of international affairs, will be based in Jerusalem. It was not clear this week whether the WJC will replace Singer or Steinberg in the New York office, raising questions about the future of the American section of the WJC, which claims to represent Jewish communities in 80 countries. "I don´t know if there will be a paid professional here," Steinberg said. "It´s too early to tell," said Singer. One Jewish activist said he was worried about the changes. "For me the biggest concern is what does this mean for the future of the World Jewish Congress?" said Neal Sher, former head of AIPAC, the nation´s top pro-Israel lobby, and former head of the Justice Department´s Nazi-prosecuting Office of Special Investigations. Sher contended that the myriad battles over Holocaust restitution that the WJC has fought over the last six years, "could only have been done from the United States." But WJC senior vice president Isidore Leibler hailed the move to Jerusalem because it symbolically places Israel front and center in the mission of the worldwide group, where, he said, it belongs. "I believe it is highly timely and I hope it will mean the WJC will recognize more than in the past the need to back Israel," said Leibler, who moved to Jerusalem some years ago from Australia. "I hope helping Israel will be the major function as opposed to all other things [the group] is involved in … because we are going through an existential struggle in Israel." The WJC, formed in 1936, seeks to "intensify bonds of world Jewry with Israel and strengthen solidarity of among Jews everywhere and secure their rights, status and interests ad individuals and communities," according to the American Jewish Year Book. Some observers say the last two decades it was largely the fiefdom of Bronfman, who revitalized the group founded by Rabbi Stephen Wise and Nachum Goldmann. He gave it financial clout and brought in Singer and Steinberg to run the operation, which regained headlines with its leadership role in the restitution issue after years of back-channel diplomatic work in the former Soviet Union and with the Vatican. Singer told The Jewish Week that the power of the WJC will be split in two: the administrative center will be in Jerusalem while the political center will "remain in the Diaspora," where, it appears, he and Bronfman will continue to dominate. Singer said while he is indeed leaving his paid position "within weeks," he expects to still be the No. 2 man at WJC, after Bronfman. He said he will be the lay chairman of a new seven-person WJC executive operating committee. "I´m not leaving. I have been elevated to the point that I´m No. 2 in the hierarchy," he said. Singer said that as chairman of the new operating committee, he will direct the professional staff of the WJC. "Israel Singer is here and more important than he was before," he said at one point. "I´m not going away. The caterpillar has become a butterfly. He´s been transformed." He said new secretary-general, Beker, will report to him. But some balked at that notion. "There´s a tradition that the secretary-general is not just an employee of the WJC, and that´s been respected by previous representatives," said Leibler. "Singer had those rights himself and I would hope that he will provide Avi Beker with the same framework of autonomy that he enjoyed himself." Regarding Steinberg, Singer said: "I thought that Elan was the most gifted person I ever worked with. I will value his counsel and I will call on him as often as he will be available." Steinberg, who has worked for the WJC for 27 years, denied that he sought the secretary-general job. He was elected to the new lay post of executive vice president in October. He had served as WJC executive director for 15 years. Steinberg said he was leaving his paid position as Singer´s deputy because the team he had been working with — Singer and Bronfman — was also leaving. Told that it appeared that both Bronfman and Singer were staying on, Steinberg said he wanted to leave on top. He said he had a "very good offer" from a public relations firm in the area of financial consulting. Known to many reporters for his ability to sell and spin a news story, Steinberg said: "The metaphor is, it´s like riding on a Ferris wheel, but it comes back down to earth the ride is over and you move on." "The story here, " he advised, "is the WJC is indeed in transition because the top leadership is moving on." Singer was asked why he didn´t decide to stay in his paid post after Bronfman changed his mind and sought a fifth term. "The message I was giving myself and the Jewish world was that 15 years as professional head of a Jewish organization is long enough, even if you´re doing a good job. I don´t want to be an administrator anymore. I want my function to be long-range political planning to create a different kind of vision for the Jewish world." Said Singer: "I believe the Jewish world is in grave danger and this is not a job for somebody to be an administrator but someone who can move around" the globe. Singer, a former City University of New York professor, said he intends to teach courses in Israel, Germany and the United States. He said he also has other business ventures and Jewish interfaith projects he will be pursuing. He said the key issues for the Jewish people are terrorism and the security of Jewish communities, because if Jewish institutions are not safe, young Jews won´t attend them, leading to the diminishment of Jewish population and culture. "Security and substance, those are the issues," Singer said.

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