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As Rift at World Jewish Congress Goes Public, Organization Could Suffer

September 15, 2004
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After a decade of unprecedented successes promoting the interests of Jews around the world, the World Jewish Congress now is at risk of being torn apart by the very people behind those accomplishments. In an internal squabble that has turned ugly and gone public, the president and chairman of the organization’s board are pitted against the congress’ senior vice president and executive vice president, and charges of corruption and financial irregularities by one side are being met with accusations of blackmail and coercion by the other.

The spat could spell trouble for the future of the 68-year-old congress at a time of major overhaul and uncertainty.

The World Jewish Congress already is in the midst of a comprehensive restructuring process, which began a year ago. And it is set to choose a new president in the coming months to replace its president of 24 years, Edgar Bronfman, who also is the organization’s single-largest financ! ial supporter.

Charges that top officials at the organization may have tried to hide $1.2 million in a Swiss bank account, that the Jewish Agency for Israel made an unusual $1.5 million payment to the congress, and that a senior lay leader at the congress is orchestrating a campaign of disinformation, defamation and intimidation in an attempt to seize power could affect the organization’s reputation and future.

People involved with the organization expressed concern that the latest conflict could impair the group in its worldwide fight against anti-Semitism, Holocaust restitution negotiations and Catholic-Jewish ties — all signature issues for the congress.

If the leadership of the congress is found to be morally compromised, it could hamper the congress’ negotiations with European governments over compensation for Nazi-era crimes, they said.

Furthermore, noted one observer, “Any negative perception of the way the organization is run, even if not considered a s! candal, could have a negative effect on the willingness of the charita ble public to contribute to that cause.”

If the group experiences a downturn in its fund raising from the general public, which accounts for more than 75 percent of the WJC’s budget, it could handicap the congress’ ability to fulfill its mission of defending and advocating for Jews around the world.

“This public spat causes damage to the Jewish people, not only the World Jewish Congress,” said Yoram Dinstein, chairman of the group’s task force on reform and restructuring and a former president of Tel Aviv University.

Dinstein, echoing the sentiments of Jewish officials at the congress and outside it, said any questions about irregularities should have been dealt with internally by the congress’ leadership, not aired publicly, thereby sullying the group’s reputation — possibly needlessly.

“There’s a huge paradox here,” he said, recounting the congress’ successes in recent months promoting conferences on anti-Semitism in Brussels, Berlin and the United Nations; co! nvening a conference of cardinals in Argentina to talk about Jewish issues, and meeting with political leaders worldwide to discuss matters of Jewish concern.

“You’d think everybody would stand up and salute each other; instead they’re sparring. I don’t understand,” Dinstein said.

The feud became public in recent days when top officials at the congress discussed with the media allegations of financial irregularities at the organization.

Israel Singer, chairman of the WJC’s governing board, said he talked publicly about the allegations to refute charges that Isi Leibler, senior vice president of the congress, already had begun peddling to the media and others outside the organization in a lengthy memorandum.

“People were calling me to tell me” about Leibler’s memo, Singer said. “Important people in important places that had the document in their hands were calling me.”

Leibler, an Australian who made aliyah in 1999, said he went public with his 12-page memo be! cause the congress had ignored his call for an independent, external a udit of the group’s finances — and because Singer had gone to the media pre-emptively in an attempt to discredit him.

In his memo, Leibler alleges that Singer has been unilaterally directing the congress’ funds and expenses; that there is no detailed annual statement of income and expenditure at the congress, and that Singer was keeping a secret pension fund, totaling more than $1.2 million, in an undisclosed bank account in Geneva, Switzerland.

Singer, who worked at the WJC for about 30 years and rose to the position of secretary general, retired in 2002 and was elected to his current lay position. He receives an annual pension of about $226,000, according to WJC officials.

He has also played a lead role in restitution negotiations and is the president of the Claims Conference.

Pinchas Shapiro, deputy director at the WJC, said Leibler’s memo is “fraught with factual inaccuracies;” that Leibler knows there is nothing nefarious about the $1.2 million account; tha! t the organization undergoes an external audit every year, and that Leibler’s purpose in raising the questions is an attempt to discredit Singer and Bronfman’s stewardship of the congress and seize power at the organization.

“This is not a fight about the 12-page memo. Leibler’s memo is only a vehicle he wanted to use to seize the World Jewish Congress,” Shapiro said. “He’s attempting to hijack what I consider the most venerable Jewish organization in the world.”

Leibler denies that.

“I have no interest of the presidency of the World Jewish Congress. I’m interested simply in restructuring and creating a democratic body,” Leibler said.

The feuding comes at a time of crossroads for the organization, both in terms of direction and leadership. The World Jewish Congress spearheaded the fight for Holocaust restitution around the world, leading to billions of dollars of funds for survivors and their heirs. With that issue largely negotiated, observers say, the group is! searching for new priorities.

At the same time, Bronfman, 75, whos e financial support helped revive the organization in the 1980s, has said he will step down as president in 2006. The congress has not yet begun considering successor candidates.

Today Bronfman contributes about 20 to 25 percent of the organization’s annual $10 million budget. The balance comes from some 400,000 North American donors, organizational officials said.

Liebler, who has sparred with Bronfman before, mostly over political differences, said those donors “have a right to fiscal transparency.”

“I’m dealing with a series of issues that certainly raise the question that there may have been financial irregularities of an extraordinarily serious nature,” he said. “There’s an absolute imperative for the World Jewish Congress to have an independent, external audit.”

But confidential e-mails obtained by JTA, which were sent in late August by Leibler to Dinstein, who was overseeing the congress’ restructuring effort, seem to show that Leibler was willing to foreg! o his demand for “a comprehensive full investigation and audit of the past five years” if the congress complied with several other demands: making Leibler a member of the board of a WJC institute, creation of a budget for Leibler’s international activities and control over certain personnel decisions in the congress’ Israel office.

Leibler says those e-mails were “purloined” from his computer, but he did not deny their veracity.

Also in late August, Leibler met with Israel’s minister of Diaspora affairs, Natan Sharansky, to raise his questions about the congress’ operations. A Sharansky adviser called the meeting “inappropriate,” and some Jewish officials point to that meeting as evidence of Leibler’s alleged intent to bully Bronfman and Singer into giving him more power in the organization.

In a telephone interview with JTA from Jerusalem, Leibler initially denied meeting any Israeli government officials to discuss the matter.

“Any insinuation that I would have! wanted to meet with a government official is outrageous and obscene,” Leibler told JTA. “The last thing I would want to do would be to bring disrepute to the body. If anybody is insinuating that I have met or spoken with any outside party, it is outrageous. I would regard that as defamation.”

Vera Golovensky, an adviser to Sharansky on Diaspora affairs, said she was with the minister when Leibler met with him.

“It was our assumption that we would be discussing anti-Semitism,” Golovensky said. “When Mr. Leibler showed up for the meeting, he expressed and talked about his concern about irregularities, which he claimed are taking place in the World Jewish Congress. When Mr. Sharanksy heard that, he strongly urged Mr. Leibler to take these allegations about irregularities that he’s so concerned with to the organization itself.”

When confronted with the account of the Sharansky meeting, Leibler said, “If you were talking about Sharansky, he’s one of my close friends.”

Leibler acknowledged that he had met with the minister but said, “Th! ere was absolutely no involvement with the minister beyond discussing aspects of Jewish corporational life and Jewish Diaspora life.”

On Aug. 30, not long after that meeting, Bronfman sent a memo to the congress’ member communities vowing to “rebut any and all attacks” on the organization, saying, “We shall not countenance nor shall we condone coercion, corruption or self-interest within our ranks.”

Bronfman also rendered powerless the three-person operations committee that ran the congress’s day-to-day affairs — consisting of Singer, Leibler and Elan Steinberg, executive vice president of the congress — and replaced it with a nine-person steering committee headed by Stephen Herbits, whom Bronfman described as his right-hand man at the Seagram Company, where Bronfman was chairman.

The move significantly diluted Leibler’s power, and eliminated Steinberg from the committee altogether.

Meanwhile, Franklyn Snitow, a lawyer for Bronfman and Singer, in a Sept. 3 let! ter to the general counsel of the WJC, warned that Leibler and Steinbe rg were making unfounded accusations about irregularities in an attempt to “secure their respective personal positions at the expense of the congress.”

Steinberg, who left his post as executive vice president at the congress two years ago but returned a year later as a senior adviser, declined JTA’s requests for comment.

The letter expressed deep concern about the public perception of the congress should the accusations, “no matter how baseless, linger in the minds of the public, long after they are reported as unfounded.”

“Mr. Leibler’s communications conjure an environment of mystery and intrigue about an account which simply represents a proposed pension to be received by Mr. Singer, of which Mr. Leibler was aware.”

Minutes of a WJC Operations Committee meeting of July 18 demonstrate Leibler’s awareness of the bank account in Geneva, and its subsequent transfer to New York. Congress officials say the account was in Geneva because that was the one place the con! gress had a pension plan in place for its Geneva office employees, and that nobody was trying to cover up existence of the account.

But Avi Beker, former secretary general of the congress, told JTA he was never told about the account when he was at the congress.

“I was never aware that the money existed,” Beker said. “I heard rumors only after I left. I never saw anything about it.”

In his memo, Leibler says the $1.2 million account previously had not been disclosed, and that he only found out about it after Daniel Lack, a lawyer and longtime congress staff member in Geneva, wrote to him about its existence. Leibler also says that Singer said that the money was earmarked for his pension and came from the Jewish Agency.

Once questions were raised about the account, the money was transferred to New York so WJC officials in New York could keep a closer eye on the money.

Singer denies that the money was earmarked for anything specific, though he says there was co! nsideration for using it to make pension payments to a couple of peopl e at the congress.

The Jewish Agency says it made a $1.5 million payment to the congress in 2001, but that it was not for anything specific and it was up to the congress to determine how to use it.

In 1998, the Jewish Agency had stopped making its $500,000 annual contribution to the congress — a feature of the historic partnership between the agency and the congress.

In 2001, after negotiation with the WJC, the Jewish Agency made a compromise and transferred $1.5 million as a final settlement for all previous commitments, said Michael Jankelowitz, a Jewish Agency spokesman, who said the agency “no longer makes allocations to major organizations.”

Bronfman did not return JTA’s calls requesting comment, but Yoram Dori, an Israeli public relations executive who is representing Bronfman and Singer, said Bronfman “doesn’t think that every day, again and again, he has to defend himself against a man who wants power and only power.”

The brouhaha at the congress has! upset many members of the WJC, particularly the congress’ branches around the world.

“Adults could handle this differently,” said Mati Droblas, chairman of the Israel branch of the WJC and a member of the group’s executive committee.

“Why didn’t he ask the executive to appoint a committee?” he said of Leibler and his questions. “The press won’t solve the problem.”

Droblas said the congress’ executive committee will meet Sept. 20 and likely will consider ways to eject Leibler from the congress. Steinberg, who is seen as an ally of Leibler, also could be at risk of ejection from the congress, where he has a salaried position.

“I think that the executive has to meet and decide if there is room for a person like this on the executive,” Droblas said of Leibler.

In Paris, the European Jewish Congress said it “distances itself from Isi Liebler” and “rejects all accusations based on rumors circulating in the press undermining the leadership of the WJC.”

Serge Cw! ajgenbaum, secretary general of the European Jewish Congress, a WJC co nstituent body, said, “These unfounded rumors are only doing damage to world Jewry.”

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