With the election of Ronald Lauder as its interim president, the World Jewish Congress is hoping to put aside years of turmoil from political infighting and allegations of financial mismanagement.
Lauder, the president of the Jewish National Fund, defeated Mendel Kaplan, 59-17, in a vote Sunday of the organization’s board of governors. Earlier in the day, the WJC executive committee had voted 11-4 to recommend Lauder to the board.
Also Sunday, the WJC’s secretary-general, Stephen Herbits, said in a report to the governing board that he would resign if Lauder and Bronfman were chosen.
Lauder succeeds Edgar Bronfman, who retired after serving nearly 30 years as president. The board of governors overwhelmingly voted in Bronfman’s son, Matthew, as its chair. Matthew Bronfman, the chairman of the WJC’s finance committee, was running as part of a ticket with Lauder and was unopposed.
The WJC is best known for securing billions in Holocaust restitution funds and fighting anti-Semitism. But its reputation has suffered as a result of the turmoil of the past several years.
In March it fired its longtime powerbroker, Rabbi Israel Singer, amid accusations of financial improprieties.
Edgar Bronfman alleged that Singer, who had held top positions in the WJC for three decades, had taken money without proper authorization or documentation. Singer denied the charges.
Insiders had said they were looking toward ending that chapter of the organization and refocusing its energies on issues such as Iran and anti-Semitism.
Lauder defeated Kaplan, a South African steel magnate who was chairman of the WJC executive. Also in the race were Einat Wilf, an Israeli activist and writer, and Vladimir Herzberg, a Russian-Israeli nuclear physicist. Only Herzberg was not in attendance at the vote. Wilf withdrew her candidacy after giving a speech to the governing board.
The interim president will serve until 2009, when the WJC holds its next plenary and selects a permanent president.
Herbits, a former top adviser to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Edgar Bronfman’s right-hand man at Seagram, was brought into the WJC three years ago to clean up things amid charges of mismanagement.
He wrote in the report to the governing board: “Having received confirmation from Ronald S. Lauder and Matthew Bronfman that they will continue the reforms instituted at the WJC, and that individuals from the WJC’s recent past will not return, including Israel Singer, Elan Steinberg, Bobby Brown and Isi Leibler, I will tender my resignation immediately following Sunday s election should the WJC vote in Ronald Lauder as president and Matthew Bronfman as chairman.”
Steinberg and Leibler were former top-ranking WJC officials who left amid controversy as charges against the organization’s leaders began cropping up several years ago. Brown was fired as director-general of the Israel branch in the same conference call in which Singer’s dismissal was announced.
Herbits said he would have stayed had Kaplan won.