NEW YORK (JTA) – The chairman of the United Israel Appeal announced that he would not seek a third term in office, citing the controversy over his harsh criticisms of the top leaders of the North American federation system.
Richard Wexler is in his second one-year term as the chairman of UIA, which acts as the legal conduit through which Jewish federations send money to the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Wexler was a candidate to continue in his post, but in a harshly worded letter April 3 he informed the nominating committee that he would step down. He said his contentious relationship with top members of the United Jewish Communities, the North American arm of the federation system, had become a distraction.
UJC leaders, meanwhile, described Wexler’s announcement as a pre-emptive move, saying that the nominating committee was poised to choose against him because his continued assault on the federation body had rendered him an ineffective leader.
“The irony is that his own people pushed him out,” Joe Kanfer, the UJC president and a member of the nominating committee, told JTA. “He was simply not on the same wavelength with his own executive committee.”
Whatever the cause, the departure would appear to represent a setback for one of the most vocal critics of the UJC leadership.
Wexler has often been at odds with the group’s leaders since he helped to form the UJC in 1999 from a merger of the United Jewish Appeal, the Council of Jewish Federations and the UIA.
After failed bids to become the UJC’s first CEO and later its president, Wexler has harshly criticized the organization over the way it is run. He has focused on the UJC’s inability to increase significantly the dollars brought into the system through annual federation campaigns and from the system’s overseas partners, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency, on whose board of governors Wexler sits.
Wexler has voiced his opinions publicly through the media, privately in what has become a notorious series of letters to UJC leaders and through his blog, “UJ Thee and Me.” He even wrote a book in 2003 about the merger titled “United Jewish Catastrophes … A Love Story.”
In recent months Wexler has been particularly critical of Kanfer and the UJC’s CEO and executive vice president, Howard Rieger, over their plan to restructure the organization.
The plan – which includes the UJC playing a more active role in advising federations and involves splitting UJC into a North American office for domestic needs and overseas office in Israel for overseas needs – passed overwhelmingly last June when the organization incorporated it into its most recent budget.
But Wexler has maintained that Rieger and Kanfer consulted too few people in forming their plan, and then bulldozed it through the UJC board. Its implementation, he says, has led several top professionals to resign.
The rift came to a head with the emergence of another blog this winter called “Disunited Jewish Communities.” Apparently written by a UJC insider, the blog regularly dishes dirt on UJC’s internal affairs and levies harsh criticism, much of it in line with Wexler’s thinking.
Speculation has run rampant within the UJC offices that Wexler, if not the blog’s author, was closely affiliated with it – a claim Wexler vociferously denies.
During the merger of the UJC, the UIA was preserved as essentially a shell organization because it holds the tax letter that allows the federation system to send money tax free to the Jewish Agency and because it receives approximately $40 million per year in grants from the U.S. government to help Israel absorb refugees.
Observers close to the UJC say the organization did not want to jeopardize the tax letter or those grants.
Still, despite the position’s diminished power, the UIA chairmanship holds considerable political weight within the federation system. The UIA chair gets a seat on the Jewish Agency’s executive and nominating committees, and everyone who has held the position has served as an ex-officio member of the UJC’s boad of trustees.
Wexler acknowledges that the UIA board most likely would not have chosen him to serve another term. He maintains that Kanfer and Rieger forced the board’s hand.
“They decided they would make things up to force me out, and ultimately I decided not to be forced out,” he told JTA.
Kanfer openly admits to lobbying against Wexler.
“I am the leader of the UJC, I expressed my dissatisfaction with him and his approach, including everything from blogging publicly with untruths, and I felt that he was not an effective leader of the UIA,” Kanfer told JTA. “It is an important organization and I did not think that Richard could lead it. Everyone knew how I felt. They are the ones who chose not to renominate him.”
Members of the nine-person committee who spoke to JTA were split on the decision, with some supporting Wexler and others supporting the decision to go in another direction.
“I was certainly disappointed,” said Bruce Arbit, who ultimately was chosen to replace Wexler as the UIA chairman in November.
Wexler laughed in responding to Kanfer’s allegation that he was out of step with the UIA executive committee.
“The leadership of UIA has been fully supportive,” he said, “and I have exrpessed my appreciation to them for their support. Joe has never participated in any executive committee sessions of UIA; Joe’s comments are what I would expect to hear from Joe.”
Wexler used his exit letter to lash out at Rieger and Kanfer.
“They have also been engaged together in a campaign of vilification and personal demonization toward me in a manner unbecoming the leadership positions they hold and, in particular, the Jewish leadership positions they hold,” Wexler wrote. “They have spread falsehoods about me in reckless disregard for the truth and when confronted with the falsity of these attacks, alleged that they cannot ‘trust’ me, thereby standing the concept of ‘trust’ on its head and, with ‘trust,’ truth. They continue their attacks and misrepresentations to this day.
“Under such circumstances, I cannot stand for a renomination, for to do so has the immediate potential for impacting on the work of United Israel Appeal as mandated by the merger creating United Jewish Communities.”
Rieger would not comment for this story.
Wexler said he will spend more time concentrating on his local federation, in Chicago, where he once served as chairman and still sits on the executive committee, while remaining a member of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency. He remains a trustee of the UJC but plans to reduce his involvement.
Leaving the UIA position, Wexler said, will allow him to be more prolific in his criticism of the federation system.
Among other things, he is working on a follow-up to “United Jewish Catastrophes … A Love Story.”