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Bronfman to Stay, Others Go As Rift at Wjc Leads to Action

September 23, 2004
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It’s been a stormy week at the World Jewish Congress. Two senior officials have left — apparently not of their own accord — the president who intended to resign changed his mind, and the group’s next worldwide plenum was moved up to this fall from 2006.

What is happening at the WJC?

Amid questions about financial irregularities and an apparent power struggle at the helm of the organization, the group’s steering committee announced Monday that the WJC’s senior vice president, Isi Leibler, was asked to cease all activity on behalf of the organization.

The group’s longtime president, Edgar Bronfman, who was expected to step down next year after two and a half decades at the helm, also announced that he was aborting his resignation plans and would run for another five-year term.

The moves come just days after an internal squabble at the WJC became public and turned ugly, involving charges of corruption, financial irregularit! ies, stolen computer records and blackmail.

Leibler, who also was stripped Monday of his membership on the WJC steering committee, said the moves are an attempt to silence whistle-blowers calling for fiscal transparency and a comprehensive, independent audit at the organization.

“What happened yesterday was akin to a politburo,” Leibler told JTA the day after the committee’s meeting. “The experience of undergoing a kangaroo court was somewhat unique.”

Israel Singer, chairman of the WJC’s governing board, denied that Monday’s meeting with regional representatives of the WJC was a politburo.

“A politburo is a bunch of cronies. These were not cronies. These are democratically elected people that came with proxies to throw him out,” Singer said, referring to Leibler.

The shakeup at the WJC extends beyond Leibler. The group’s executive vice president, Elan Steinberg, also is leaving his post.

While both he and other WJC officials were careful not to characteri! ze his departure as a dismissal, the move comes after WJC officials ca me to believe that Steinberg was allied with Leibler in making claims about activities at the organization.

Monday’s emergency meeting of the steering committee came in the wake of 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 Leibler was orchestrating a campaign of disinformation in an attempt to seize power at the WJC.

Bronfman also said he would move up the group’s next worldwide plenary meeting to this fall, rather than waiting until late 2005 or early 2006, as originally planned.

Bronfman said he was making the changes “given the priority of moving past the turbulence of the last year and the need to take a more productive posture towards restructuring efforts I started last year,” according to a WJC statement. He declined to comment for this article.

This is not the first time Leibler and Bronfman have! sparred publicly. A year ago, their political differences spilled into the public after Leibler wrote a newspaper column demanding that Bronfman apologize or resign for urging President Bush to pressure Israel and the Palestinians to follow the “road map” peace plan.

But both he and Bronfman’s deputies insist that this time, the conflict is not about politics.

“It did start that way,” said Singer. “Bronfman differs with Leibler in substance, but this has nothing to do with substance — it has to do with scurrilous behavior. Leibler used McCarthyite tactics in a situation where he had no substance.”

At the crux of the brouhaha at the WJC are two alternative narratives that paint very different pictures of the current conflict.

According to Leibler’s narrative, he and a few others connected to the WJC became aware in July of possible financial irregularities at the organization — including a previously unknown $1.2 million bank account in Switzerland that Singer! claimed was for his pension — and pushed internally for an overhaul of the organization and its finances.

According to this account, Singer and Bronfman tried to weaken Leibler’s ability to effect change by dismantling the three-person operations committee on which Leibler and Steinberg wielded significant power and replacing it in August with a nine-person steering committee that included Leibler but not Steinberg.

When Leibler continued to press for fiscal transparency — which Leibler said the WJC’s 400,000 North American donors rightly deserved — Singer, aware that Leibler’s questions were raising eyebrows, went to the media pre-emptively in an attempt to discredit Leibler, refute his claims and portray him as disgruntled and power hungry, according to Leibler’s narrative.

E-mails that Leibler said had been taken illicitly from his computer, which appeared to back up Singer’s claims, then were circulated to the media.

A very different narrative is being promoted by Singer, Pinchas Shapiro — the deputy director of the congre! ss in New York — and Stephen Herbits, Bronfman’s longtime associate, whom Bronfman appointed to be transition manager at the WJC.

They say Leibler knows there is nothing nefarious happening at the WJC and that his raising of questions about irregularities needlessly sullies the otherwise good name of a 68-year-old organization that has been at the forefront of the worldwide fight against anti-Semitism, achieved great successes in negotiations with European governments over Holocaust restitution, and represents Jews and Jewish interests around the world.

According to their account, Leibler either knew or easily could have found out about the $1.2 million account, which has been set aside for pension payments — including future payments to Singer, who receives an annual $226,000 pension from the WJC.

The three-person operations committee was replaced in August with the nine-person steering committee to give greater representation to regional WJC chairmen around the! world, according to this account.

And Singer went to the media to rebut Leibler’s allegations only after Leibler already had leaked to the media details of his 12-page memorandum outlining his charges.

For the time being, the truth of all these claims and counterclaims remains unclear.

There are enough questions, says Leibler to “justify a fully independent, comprehensive audit.”

“The real issue, to my mind, is corporate governance,” he said. “Full fiscal transparency and accountability — that’s what this is all about.”

WJC officials say that the organization undergoes an independent audit each year and there is full transparency.

The appointment of Herbits, whom Bronfman described in an Aug. 30 memo to the WJC leadership as his “right hand man at Seagram,” would “rebut any and all attacks on the World Jewish Congress” and “manage a full operational and financial audit,” according to that memo.

Herbits told JTA he has reviewed the financial statements of the WJC’s auditors and so far concluded that there is no malfeasanc! e at the WJC by anyone “other than those people making this information public,” referring to Leibler.

He said of those auditors, “If I feel there is a need — not a legal need, but a need to quiet this debate — I will ask them to expand on those issues that are being discussed.”

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