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European Jewish group calls on official to quit

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Philanthropist and World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman. (Richard Lobell Photography)

Philanthropist and World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman. (Richard Lobell Photography)

BERLIN, Nov. 9 (JTA) — The European Jewish Congress is calling on a World Jewish Congress official to resign. The demand for Isi Leibler’s resignation came at a gathering of the group here on Sunday, six weeks after the WJC’s senior vice president was asked to cease all activity on behalf of the organization. The demand by the European Jewish Congress, which is affiliated with the World Jewish Congress, is the latest episode in a squabble that has afflicted the top WJC leadership. The WJC is best known in recent years for negotiating Holocaust restitution with Swiss banks. Leibler got into hot water after an internal squabble at the WJC became public and turned ugly. Leibler charges that top officials at the organization tried to hide $1.2 million in a Swiss bank account and that the Jewish Agency for Israel made an unusual $1.5 million payment to the group. He also alleges that WJC officials refused to investigate the issue. For their part, WJC officials, including the group’s president, Edgar Bronfman, say the $1.2 million was set aside for pension payments — including future payments to Israel Singer, chairman of the WJC’s governing board, who receives an annual $226,000 pension. They say Leibler is orchestrating a campaign of disinformation in an attempt to seize power at the WJC. The fight already has reverberated inside the organization. As a result of the squabble, Leibler was asked in September to cease all activities on behalf of the organization. A man believed to be Leibler’s ally, Elan Steinberg, the WJC’s executive vice president, left his post. Bronfman, who was expected to step down next year after two and a half decades at the WJC’s helm, announced in September that he was aborting his resignation plans and would run for another five-year term. The controversial matter dominated the morning session of the EJC’s annual meeting, which brought together representatives of Jewish communities in 25 countries, including several new members of the European Union. For his part, Leibler told JTA that “it is a shame that the EJC has not been prepared to listen to my views and has been willing to adopt a position listening only to one side.” In a telephone interview with JTA from Israel, Leibler said he would ask EJC leaders to “set up a meeting so I can talk to them,” adding that “every single person who has expressed concern or asked for an independent audit has either been expelled, vilified or marginalized.” Where exactly the truth lies remains unclear, but this week’s move by the European group appears to give Singer and his allies a boost. In their statement, virtually all members of the EJC presidium demanded Leibler’s resignation. They accuse Leibler, who has criticized what he calls a lack of transparency in WJC financial affairs, of “initiating a media campaign that is damaging, not only to the World Jewish Congress but also to the Jewish people at large.” They stated that a certified audit of WJC finances presented by Stephen Herbits — a close Bronfman associate who was made the WJC’s chief operating officer — showed that “there were no irregularities and that the $1.2 million, about which the allegations were made, always remained within the control of the World Jewish Congress.” The Swiss Jewish community has indicated it is not satisfied with the audit and has demanded a fuller investigation. The European group gave its Swiss member, the Federation of Swiss Jewish Communities, two weeks to sign the statement or risk suspension from the EJC presidium. Spokesman Thomas Lyssy said the Swiss group still is considering the matter. Singer told JTA that he was not surprised by the EJC’s expression of support. Calling Leibler’s recent statements “scandalous,” he said that “as far as we are concerned, the subject is closed.” But Leibler maintains that his intentions are innocent. He says that his words echo those of Daniel Lack, a longtime legal adviser to the WJC Geneva office, who, according to the Swiss magazine Facts, warned Singer in a private memo last summer that an independent audit was necessary “to protect the WJC from all kinds of accusations of impropriety, embezzlement and money laundering.” Meanwhile, Herbits told Facts that the Geneva office of the WJC, which had been closed during the uproar, will be reopened with a new staff.

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