Three hats in WJC ring?

Edgar Bronfman in a file photo. ()

Edgar Bronfman in a file photo. ()

NEW YORK (JTA) – Three candidates appear to be vying for leadership of the World Jewish Congress when Edgar Bronfman vacates the presidency June 10.The WJC’s 23-person executive committee, which is composed of the organization’s steering committee and vice presidents, will meet that day to propose an acting president. That person would head the organization until a president is chosen for a full four-year term at the next plenary in 2009.The WJC’s governing board, which is made up of representatives from the various world bodies that comprise the congress, will convene in New York later on June 10. The board either will approve the executive committee’s candidate for acting president or select someone else nominated from the floor.Bronfman informed the WJC’s steering committee last week that he was resigning after nearly 30 years as the WJC’s steward and primary benefactor, a tenure capped by four years of turmoil involving investigations into the organization’s finances.As soon as Bronfman resigned, Pierre Besnainou, president of the European Jewish Congress and a member of the steering committee, backed the chair of the WJC’s executive committee, Mendel Kaplan of South Africa, for the presidency.A lawyer by training, Kaplan controls Cape Gate, his family’s steel manufacturing business. He is a former president of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s board of governors and is honorary president of Keren Hayesod, JAFI’s international fund-raising arm.Before his resignation, Bronfman had been lobbying to have his son, Matthew, take over his job. In an e-mail interview with JTA, the senior Bronfman would not comment on his family’s future involvement with the organization.”Right now is too soon to say,” he told JTA last week.Matthew Bronfman, chairman of the WJC’s budget and finance committee and until recently a director at Israel Discount Bank, has not responded to JTA queries about his plans. It’s not clear whether he will run for acting president because of opposition to the appearance of a dynasty.Some say the younger Bronfman will take another position in the WJC leadership and run for president in 2009.Cosmetics mogul Ronald Lauder is the third person who appears to be positioning himself for a run. He sent a letter last week to the WJC’s American Section warning that the selection of a president must be done in accordance with the organization’s by-laws. The organization affirmed that it was committed to doing so.Warren Kazak, Lauder’s special assistant, told JTA that Lauder would not officially enter the race until he was “sure that there is going to be a fair and transparent election.”Lauder, a former WJC treasurer, is president of the Jewish National Fund and a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. He has played a central role in reviving Central and Eastern European Jewry by building schools across the region through the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.Under Lauder, JNF emerged from a late-1990s scandal over its allocations and now receives high rankings from Charity Navigator, a non-profit watchdog group.Two sources who preferred to remain anonymous told JTA that in recent days Lauder has sought the support of Alexander Mashkevich, president of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, and Moshe Kantor, president of the Russian Jewish Congress.On May 16, the sources said, Lauder was in Israel lobbying for support. Kozak would not confirm or deny that.”We are not cutting any deals,” Kozak said. “What he is absolutely determined about is that he wants this to be an open and fair election.”Potential candidates must declare and submit a resume to the WJC secretariat by June 1.While that trio angles for the WJC’s top lay spot, its top professional, Secretary General Stephen Herbits is at the center of the maelstrom.Herbits was a top aide to former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a longtime consultant to Edgar Bronfman at Seagram. Bronfman brought him to the WJC in 2004 in the face of an investigation into WJC financial practices by the New York state attorney general.Some found Herbits overly aggressive in trying to restore order, and there has been intense pressure on Bronfman and the steering committee to fire him or force him to resign before the June 10 election.Herbits declined repeated interview requests for this story, providing only a statement through the WJC’s public relations firm, Dan Klores Communications.”Stephen Herbits’ singular focus is on ensuring compliance with the law and assuring a free, fair and open election,” the statement said. “Ensuring a transparent election process, on top of the governance reforms that have already implemented, will restore credibility to this important organization.”Herbits was voted into his position by the WJC plenary, and sources in the organization say it will be difficult to fire him. He is slated to hold his position until 2009.Those close to Herbits say he has no intention of resigning before a new acting president is elected. JTA Prague Correspondent Dinah Spritzer contributed to this story.

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