BRUSSELS (Jan. 11)
Delegates to a World Jewish Congress plenary assembly in Brussels have given almost unanimous backing to the organization’s leadership, a possible turning point following bitter accusations of financial mismanagement. Most of the 500 or so delegates in attendance here this week gave a standing ovation to Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the WJC’s governing board, as he detailed the organization’s work in the area of Holocaust restitution and combating anti-Semitism.
But Isi Leibler, the group’s former senior vice president, sat silently, waiting to detail a list of allegations concerning the WJC leadership.
Leibler, who was dismissed from the WJC’s steering committee in September, said the organization has “consistently ignored best practices” and frustrated his demands for financial transparency.
The dispute has shaken one of the major umbrella organizations of world Jewry and led to a vicious public spat among its top officials.
“Anybody who has ever asked questions in the WJC has been brutally eliminated. This has had a catastrophic effect on the organization,” Leibler told JTA.
“I believe in the WJC, but only when it is accepted that it is really moving toward transparency. In 20 years we have never seen a balance sheet and there has never been a financial report.”
Singer told JTA that he didn’t “want to grace these accusations by responding to them.”
“This is a sideshow to the real work of the WJC,” he said, adding that it was of no interest to most delegates at the assembly.
Leibler did not stand for re-election at the three-day plenary, which ended on Tuesday.
Singer was re-elected as WJC chairman and Edgar Bronfman was re-elected as president, a position he has held for two and a half decades.
Leibler’s address followed the presentation of an 800-word report on the WJC’s governance and financial practices by Stephen Herbits, a close associate of WJC President Edgar Bronfman who was hired to run the organization after Leibler’s accusations became public.
Herbits’ report detailed four separate audits the WJC ordered in recent months, by firms including PricewaterhouseCoopers.
“Full audits should be good enough,” Singer said. “There is no witch hunt and it’s a shame that we have to be wasting so much time refuting lies and it’s a shame that Jews are doing it.”
Siding with Singer, many delegates at the plenary blamed Leibler for allegedly wrecking the credibility of the organization, which has been a leader in the fight to win restitution money for Holocaust survivors.
Rabbi Henry Sobel, director of inter-religious relations for the Latin American Jewish Congress and chief rabbi of Brazil, said he was “revolted, to say the least,” by Leibler’s repeated accusations of financial mismanagement.
“I find Leibler’s behavior inexcusable because he’s hurting world Jewry and the organization he proclaims to defend,” Sobel said.
“Israel Singer has dedicated his life to the welfare of Clal Yisrael and the Jewish people. Latin American Jewry stands by his side.”
After months of charges and countercharges, much of which spilled into the media, New York State’s attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, has launched a preliminary inquiry into allegations that the WJC mishandled its finances.
When asked the status of the WJC investigation, Brad Maione, a spokesman for Spitzer’s office, declined to comment.
“I don’t have any comment on the World Jewish Congress,” he said.
Among the issues Liebler raised was a $1.2 million bank account that was discovered in the organization’s name in Switzerland. WJC officials say the money came from a Jewish Agency for Israel grant in 1998 and was set aside for WJC pensions, including Singer’s.
That version of events was confirmed by former Jewish Agency Chairman Avrum Burg, but was contradicted moments later by Burg’s successor, Sallai Meridor, who said the Jewish Agency never had specified that the money go for pensions.
Leibler says WJC officials, including himself, were kept in the dark about the Geneva account. Details of the account emerged after the closing of the WJC’s Geneva office last year and followed requests by the Swiss Jewish Federation to have the organization’s books audited.
Shortly after Bronfman’s presidential report to the plenary, Leibler demanded time to present his case. Many delegates argued that he should not be given a half hour, as he requested, and he ultimately was granted 15 minutes to speak. He later circulated a copy of his full speech.
Herbits told JTA that the matter had been cleared up.
“The auditors have found that the money was transferred from Geneva to London and then back to Geneva and then to New York, and none of them are aware of any irregularities,” he told JTA. “This issue is closed. It’s a non-issue. It never was an issue.”
Herbits’ report also noted correspondence from Leibler to various figures in the WJC arising out of the crisis. Leibler told JTA that the correspondence had been “purloined” from his personal computer, and said he had asked police to investigate the issue.
“I don’t want to personalize this more than it needs to be,” Leibler said. “I believe that my fight is responsible for seeing the beginning of the reform process go through.”