Are well-known presidents of major Jewish organizations ever free to speak out as private citizens on controversial issues concerning Israel?
That was the question being debated this week after Edgar N. Bronfman, Sr., president of the World Jewish Congress, wrote to President George W. Bush expressing his views on the peace process. His letter was co-signed by former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.
Bronfman and Eagleburger called on Bush to continue to “urge both sides to take the necessary steps to create stability and momentum in the peace process.”
Avi Beker, the WJC’s secretary general, said the WJC had nothing to do with the letter and that he had not seen a copy.
“He has his views and sometimes he expresses them,” Beker said of Bronfman. “But they are not WJC policy.”
But the WJC’s senior vice president, Isi Leibler, said it was wrong for Bronfman to have penned such a letter and called on him to retract it and apologize or to resign. Leibler said that although it appeared to be objective and “even-handed,” the letter actually criticized Israel’s security fence, adopting the language of opponents who call it a “separation wall.”
In a letter to Bronfman, Leibler wrote: “Furthermore, you urge the president to exert pressure on Israel. It would be obscene at any time for the president of the World Jewish Congress, who is a resident in New York, to lobby the president of the United States to resist policies being promoted by the government of Israel. But on a security issue such as the security fence … [the letter] can only be described as an act of perfidy which will not be swept under the carpet.”
Bronfman told The Jewish Week that he “deliberately” refrained from writing the letter on WJC stationary in order to make clear these were his private views.
“My purpose [in writing the letter] was simple,” Bronfman said. “Sharon was meeting the president and I wanted to make sure the president knew that the Jewish community is divided and is not [comprised of] all right-wing idiots.”
Critics argued, however, that Bronfman doesnít need letterhead to be identified. Morton Klein, the longtime president of the Zionist Organization of America, said he weighs his words in public because “people can construe the use of my name as the use of the ZOA name.”
Israel Singer, chairman of the WJC’s governing board, defended Bronfman, saying he simply wanted to “support the road map and the president and the peace process.”
Evelyn Sommer, president of the American section of the WJC, pointed out that Bronfman’s predecessor, Nachum Goldman, also had “very strong convictions and he never kept them quiet.”