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World Jewish Congress Embarks on Major Organizational Overhaul

The World Jewish Congress is embarking on a major rebuilding project as it searches for a new identity.

The leading 67-year-old Jewish organization, an umbrella group for more than 100 Jewish communities around the world, has appointed a task force to oversee the reorganization, which could be completed by 2005, officials said.

“This is a top-to-bottom overhaul,” said Israel Singer, chairman of the group’s governing board.

The move comes nearly two years after the WJC, which led the fight for Holocaust restitution in the 1990s, underwent upheaval among its professional leadership.

It also comes about three months after an unusually public and bitter spat between the group’s longtime president, Edgar Bronfman, and its senior vice president, Isi Leibler. WJC officials say that plans for the organizational changes long preceded the spat.

“That turned into a mudslinging contest, but it had nothing to do with setting up the task force,” said Elan Steinberg, the group’s former executive director, who left the organization nearly two years ago and recently returned as senior adviser.

In August, the politically left-of-center Bronfman and right-of-center Leibler clashed after Bronfman co-signed a letter to President Bush backing the “road map” peace place and criticizing Israel’s security fence.

Leibler demanded that Bronfman apologize or resign because he had acted without the group’s approval.

Bronfman refused and said he would urge that Leibler be stripped of his title.

The war of words between Bronfman, 74, the former chief executive of the Seagram Company and a leading philanthropist who has presided over the WJC since 1981, and Leibler, a Jerusalem-based Australian travel magnate and major funder, revived a longtime debate in the Jewish organizational world over whether Diaspora Jewish leaders should publicly challenge Israel.

In an Oct. 23 letter to the organization announcing the task force to revise the group’s 30-year-old charter, Bronfman said parts of the charter “have become archaic or irrelevant.”

“In particular, recent exchanges have demonstrated the need to review the existing structure and ensure good governance and transparency in the operations of the WJC,” Bronfman wrote.

In the letter, Bronfman echoed calls he made at the group’s 2001 plenary assembly to create a “vision for the 21st century supported by the structural changes that can bring that about.”

Bronfman added that he hoped the group would “avoid public debate” about the task force’s work.

“I therefore call on all members of the World Jewish Congress family to suspend all exchanges relating to past differences and to work jointly to achieve and promote the goals of the WJC.”

After consulting with the group’s executive, Bronfman said he had appointed Tel Aviv University’s Yoram Dinstein, who was president of TAU from 1991 to 1998, to lead the task force.

This year, TAU awarded Bronfman an honorary doctorate.

The panel will also include Steinberg, who will help Dinstein put the panel’s recommendations into effect, while Singer and Leibler will be “permanent observers.”

Leibler was in India to receive the government’s Mahatma Gandhi prize for Indo-Israel relations and could not be reached for comment. An assistant to Bronfman referred all questions to Singer, who said the panel would draft new bylaws at a time when the organization needs to consider new leaders.

Bronfman has said he will likely step down as president by 2005. Steinberg said he had “no idea” who Bronfman might tap to succeed him, but the new leader would benefit from starting with a “blank slate” organizationally.

Many of the group’s leaders joined the group during the 1960s as young men, and now the WJC and other Jewish organizations need young leaders to replace them, Singer said.

Nearly two years ago Singer stepped down from the post of secretary-general, and Steinberg, then his deputy as executive director, also resigned.

Avi Becker replaced Singer, though plans to shift the group’s headquarters from New York to Jerusalem never reached fruition.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the WJC, as other Jewish groups, is its search for meaning, Singer said.

“This is a bad, overused ’60s word, but you have to become relevant,” Singer said. “Jewish life in general, from an organizational viewpoint, needs to be renewed, and I say that as an old hand.”

Young Jews need to feel they have a “stake” in Jewish life, Singer added, and “one way of doing that is giving people a voice.”

The organization is also searching for its own voice, Steinberg said.

In addition to its role in Holocaust restitution issues, the WJC fought for Soviet Jews during the Cold War and exposed the Nazi ties of former U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim.

The organization was created as a “global address for Jewish concerns,” such as Holocaust issues, anti-Semitism, interfaith relations and the hunt for Nazis, and long ago took pains not to get involved in local Jewish community issues, he said.

But now, with anti-Semitic violence on the rise in places such as the former Soviet Union and France, that goal “may no longer be relevant,” Steinberg said.

Task force members likely will travel to meet with member Jewish communities and convene hearings on change proposals, then issue interim reports, Steinberg said.

The group’s leadership will then decide how to institute the changes, whether via a special constitutional convention or via a vote at its next assembly, in 2005.

“I am determined that we are demonstrating that everybody will have their input,” Steinberg said. “We want the final product and the process to be an example for other institutions.”

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