With the election of Ronald Lauder as its interim president, the World Jewish Congress hopes to put aside years of turmoil from political infighting and allegations of financial mismanagement.
Lauder, the cosmetics heir and president of the Jewish National Fund, defeated Mendel Kaplan, the South African steel magnate and former chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel, in a 59-17 vote Sunday of the organization’s board of governors.
“The next step is to build a unified organization and look at the entire World Jewish Congress, and determine the extent of the polarity and end the strife because we have to move beyond that,” Lauder, 63, told JTA shortly after his victory. “I think a lot of that is behind us. We need to look at the unity of the Jewish people, and I am very excited.”
Lauder succeeds Edgar Bronfman, who retired Sunday 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.
Also Sunday, the WJC’s secretary-general, Stephen Herbits, said in a report to the governing board that he would resign if Lauder and Matthew Bronfman were chosen.
Earlier in the day, the WJC executive committee had voted 11-4 to recommend Lauder to the board.
Young Israeli reformer Einat Wilf received no votes at that meeting and pulled out of the election during her speech before the board of governors. A fourth candidate, Israeli nuclear physicist Vladimir Hertzberg, was not in attendance and received no votes.
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.
It also has experienced a 33 percent decline in fund raising over the first quarter of 2007 and faces an ongoing audit by the Internal Revenue Service.
In March Edgar Bronfman fired his longtime powerbroker and friend, Rabbi Israel Singer, amid accusations of financial improprieties.
That firing and the subsequent announcement of Edgar Bronfman’s retirement led to intense political infighting among those jockeying for the organization’s top lay spot.
That carried over to Sunday, as the executive committee meeting at WJC headquarters was marked by intense bickering over electoral procedures.
Board member Shai Hermesh walked out and did not return, telling JTA later that the WJC’s Israel delegation had been “insulted” in the selection of a nominating committee for the elections.
During their speeches to the board of governors, Lauder spoke of the need for improved Jewish education around the world, and Wilf said the organization potentially could provide a forum to build Jewish unity among the religious streams and age groups.
Kaplan gave perhaps the most impassioned speech. Given that he had been defeated soundly at the executive committee meeting and realizing the board of governors’ vote likely would turn out similarly, Kaplan seemed to offer his organization fatherly advice.
He told the governing board that it must move past! dependi ng financially on “one or two individuals.”
Edgar Bronfman reportedly kept the organization afloat during his tenure as president, giving some $2 million per year to the WJC.
While Lauder acknowledged to JTA that he has made a financial commitment to the WJC, he said he did not want to discuss the details of that commitment until a later date.
Kaplan said above all, the WJC must move past its infighting.
“What you really have is what you create for others, not what you do for yourself,” he told the governing board. “What will really grow this organization is if we stop this intense competition between ourselves and stop thinking about ourselves and think of the good of the organization.
“We need to develop a program that we buy into, and we need to cut out this tremendous personal antagonism and personal rivalry. That will allow us to be not only an ‘ohr la goyim’ (light unto the nations), but a light to our own people.”
Lauder will serve as interim president until 2009, when the WJC holds its next plenary and selects a permanent president. He told JTA that he hoped to serve just one term of four years after his interim presidency.
The mood was conciliatory after the election.
“I think this will be a new chapter in terms of the unity of the organization and intergenerational cooperation in terms of the Lauder generation and the Matthew Bronfman generation,” Rabbi Marc Schneier, the chair of the WJC’s American section and a steering committee member, told JTA.
Kaplan left shortly after the election and was unavailable to JTA for comment. But his main supporter, European Jewish Congress President Pierre Besnainou, said he was looking forward to reconciliation.
“It was a democratic decision, and I have to congratulate Ron Lauder. He made a good campaign,” Besnainou told JTA. “Now we have to work together for the better of the organization. That is the most important thing.
“I am sure Ro! nald Lau der will do everything he can to rebuild the organization. Now is the time to see the future. The majority thinks he is the best candidate. I have to follow the majority. This is a democracy, and I will do everything I can to help him.”
Much of the resuscitation of the WJC may hinge upon who becomes the next secretary-general.
During Edgar Bronfman’s tenure, he was seen as the face of the organization. Rabbi Israel Singer was its primary strategist and deal maker.
Herbits, a former top adviser to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and an adviser to Edgar Bronfman at Seagram, was brought in three years ago to clean up things amid charges of mismanagement.
Much of the acrimony at the WJC has centered on Herbits, who was seen by some as a bulldog in cleaning up the organization. Before Herbits came aboard as secretary-general, while he was serving as an adviser to Edger Bronfman, top officials Elan Steinberg and Isi Leibler were pushed out after Leibler raised concerns about WJC finances.
During Herbits’ tenure, Singer and another top WJC official, Bobby Brown, were dismissed. Also, the finances of the WJC’s Israel office came under scrutiny.
In his report to the governing board, Herbits wrote that he would resign if Lauder and Matthew Bronfman won because they confirmed 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.”
Herbits chafed when asked about his resignation, saying he had only “handed in his resignation” and that it had not yet been accepted.
Lauder would not say whether the resignation would be accepted and, if it was, who might replace Herbits.
But Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, the vice chair of the European Jewish Congress, said he had spoken with Lauder about the matter and thinks Lauder will put in place an acting secretary- general.
Lauder then will ! “search around for the best Jew he can find,” Bleich said, adding that candidates will need national and international experience.
“Things are contentious at the World Jewish Congress,” Bleich, a board member of the Ronald Lauder Foundation, told JTA following Lauder’s victory. “I think the World Jewish Congress has to bring the ‘J’ back into the equation. And I hope Ron Lauder will bring that back.”