Amid the whirlwind of controversy that has surrounded the World Jewish Congress, Edgar Bronfman has remained largely silent since announcing that he would resign his presidency effective June 10.
In his first comments to the media since disclosing his plans to the WJC’s steering committee May 7, Bronfman spoke with JTA via e-mail about his past with the WJC, his future without it and what he expects from the organization moving forward.
“It will be up to new leadership to chart a forward path for the WJC. It will be up to them to determine what role they should play and how to perform it,” said Bronfman, 76. “But communities are not static — they change constantly. They diminish. They grow. Population and attitudes change. We live in a time of challenge, no doubt. But this also is an era of remarkable innovation and entrepreneurship.”
Bronfman became interim WJC president in 1979 and president in 1981. During his reign the group played an instrumental role in the Soviet Jewry movement, often negotiating behind the scenes with Soviet leaders. It helped expose Austrian President Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi past, and during the 1990s helped win billions of dollars in Holocaust restitution money from European governments and banks.
Observers say Bronfman brought a personal flamboyance and financial clout that helped the WJC obtain the meetings with world leaders that helped it flourish in the 1980s and 1990s.
“Thirty years ago the challenge was to stabilize the WJC, clarify its mission and grow its membership,” Bronfman told JTA. “We made quick progress on those fronts and were able to play a major role in some of the most important Jewish events on the world stage.”
Among his favorite memories, Bronfman said, was telling Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir “that Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze agreed to lift the ban on teaching Hebrew and allow Russian Jews to worship and live their lives as Jews openly and wit! h dignit y.”
Bronfman, who met with Pope John Paul II, said he was proud as well of the WJC’s efforts to improve relations between Jews and the Catholic Church.
Despite its successes during Bronfman’s tenure, the WJC now appears in peril following four years of investigations into the group’s finances, which have bogged down the organization.
The last five years have taken a toll on the organization, damaging its credibility and apparently its fund-raising ability. A recent report from the WJC showed that its fund raising was down by 33 percent during the first quarter of 2007.
Bronfman leaves amid questions about the organization’s role going forward.
Without the restitution battle as its focus, the WJC of late has taken up the fight against anti-Semitism, with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as its key target. But critics say that mantle is already worn by bodies such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Israeli government.
The WJC has little or no power in the United States and Israel, where some 80 percent of world Jewry lives. Still, supporters say the organization plays a more critical role in Europe and Latin America. They also say it is the only body that convenes Jewish leaders from every region of the Jewish world.
“I don’t believe that the work of defending Jewish communities and helping them raise their voice in world councils will ever end,” Bronfman said. “The focus and tactics might shift with the times, and they should. But the work continues.”
The controversy surrounding the WJC and the saga of Israel Singer, the former chairman of the WJC’s policy board, have taken a personal toll on Bronfman as well.
Singer was entangled in an investigation by the New York state attorney general into the WJC’s finances that focused on his transferring $1.2 million of WJC money into a Swiss bank account. The attorney general did not accuse Singer of any illegalities, but he was! prevent ed from taking further financial responsibilities at WJC.
Bronfman fired Singer in March, alleging financial impropriety, including new documentation from February 2002 that Singer tried to transfer $1.5 million of WJC money into a non-WJC Swiss bank account.
Bronfman said the firing was difficult after having worked closely with Singer during his nearly 30 years as WJC president. Bronfman had also spent the past several years defending Singer.
“My mistake was in trusting Israel Singer to the extent that I did,” Bronfman told JTA. “I am extremely saddened and disappointed that the investigations of the WJC by the office of the New York state Attorney General led unavoidably to Israel Singer and thus to his termination.”
Singer’s supporters contend he did nothing improper and that it was a shock that Bronfman turned against his former lieutenant.
“Regardless of what Mr. Bronfman may now be saying, the decades-long relationship of Bronfman and Singer produced incalculable dividends for the Jewish people,” a spokesman for Singer, Hank Sheinkopf, told JTA via e-mail. “Though he sings a different tune now, Bronfman unstintingly supported Singer throughout the attorney general’s inquiry from onset to conclusion.”
Bronfman said “the biggest challenge was to preserve the integrity of the WJC and its good name. I am heartened that this period of the WJC is now over and I am looking forward to seeing a new generation take over the leadership.”
Since Bronfman announced his retirement, a power struggle has been developing involving the chair of the WJC’s executive, Mendel Kaplan; Ronald Lauder, president of the Jewish National Fund; and Bronfman’s son Matthew.
Though some speculate that Matthew Bronfman is interested in a position of power with the WJC that could eventually lead him to the presidency, it remains unclear if he actually wants to become WJC president, now or ever.
It is not clear what Edgar Bronfman’s fin! ancial i nvolvement with WJC, which has been estimated at $2 million per year, would be in the future.
Bronfman would not speculate about his family’s future with the organization.
“Right now is too soon to say,” he said.
Associates said that when Bronfman takes a step back from the WJC, he will focus on the work of his Samuel Bronfman Foundation, of which he is president. The family foundation helped revive Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and founded the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, which takes 26 high school student to Israel each summer for a five-week leadership program.
It also supports a number of Jewish programs, such as STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal), Brooklyn Jews, Myjewishlearning.com and BIMA: The Berkshire Institute for Music and Arts.
“My goals remain the same as they’ve always been. I want to see Judaism thrive and prosper from both the political and cultural standpoints,” Bronfman said in his e-mail. “I’m particularly interested in helping to foster a style of Judaism that is open and inclusive and that makes it possible for all Jews to explore their heritage in ways that are meaningful and positive.
“We’ve been doing a great a deal of work along those lines at The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, developing and supporting programs that encourage Jewish learning and community building,” he said. “I will continue to focus my energies on those activities.”