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Jewish Groups Demand Apology in Wake of Wjc Official’s Remarks

February 24, 2005
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The secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress has sparked a firestorm in the Jewish organizational world with public accusations of illegal activity by unnamed communal leaders. Stephen Herbits’ comments, in a New York Magazine story about the WJC that was released this week, have offended communal leaders, who dismissed the allegations and demanded apologies from Herbits and from Edgar Bronfman, the WJC’s billionaire president.

“Has the Jewish community become so cutthroat that the only way to advance the interests of an organization is by impugning the integrity of the other organizations?” asked David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

“I think it’s a pretty transparent and ugly diversionary tactic. It’s also truly irresponsible. In my now 30 years of Jewish communal life, I don’t remember another example of a spokesman for one Jewish organization making such mean-spirited, slash-and-burn comments about other organizations, even accusing them of allegedly illegal activity,” Harris added.

“I can only hope that Edgar Bronfman will move quickly to repudiate the comments of Herbits,” he continued. “Otherwise, they will be a long-term stain on the reputation of the World Jewish Congress.”

Bronfman was abroad and could not be reached for comment.

Asked to respond to the demands for an apology, Herbits told JTA, “No comment.”

The WJC in recent months has been embroiled in a vitriolic internal squabble over accusations by Isi Leibler, a former WJC vice president, of financial improprieties. WJC officials accused Leibler of using the accusations to try to take control of the organization.

In the magazine story, reporter Craig Horowitz mentions to Herbits that several Jewish organizational insiders said they weren’t surprised by news of the WJC’s internal imbroglio.

Herbits was quoted in the article as responding: “As you talk to the leaders of the other Jewish organizations, check their accomplishments against their governance. They’ve got perfect governance and no f–ing accomplishments. If an investigation of Jewish organizational life takes place, I promise you that the last person standing will be Israel Singer.”

Rabbi Singer, chairman of the WJC, is at the center of the organization’s controversy. He refused JTA requests for comment.

Herbits goes on to say in the article that “there are no illegalities in Israel Singer’s behavior, and that is not true of some of the leaders of these other organizations.”

“I know it and they know it and they better be careful, because if they cause enough problems in the press, then this organization won’t be the only one that has a preliminary inquiry from the attorney general’s office. Then you’ll see some real fireworks,” Herbits said, without naming any specific individuals or organizations.

Late last year, New York state’s attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, launched a preliminary investigation into the allegations against the WJC, an umbrella group for more than 100 Jewish communities around the world.

“Is the implication of Mr. Herbits’ comments that the New York State attorney general should be working full time investigating every Jewish organization registered in New York State?” Harris asked.

“That’s a brilliant idea,” he added sarcastically.

According to the article, Herbits went on to accuse other Jewish groups of falsifying IRS filings, misusing funds, lying to the government and offering bloated benefits packages — though he wouldn’t name any group purportedly guilty of such offenses.

“I think it’s a sad day for the Jewish community when an institution feels so much under attack or in a corner that it feels the need, in order to defend itself, to strike out and besmirch the rest of the organized Jewish community,” Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told JTA. “I think that the secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress owes the organized Jewish community an apology — or to name names. If he truly believes this is true, either he names the names or apologizes.”

Harris said his organization expects to write a letter to Bronfman.

“We are looking to see whether Mr. Bronfman will address the issue,” he said. “If he does, we will listen carefully to what he says or writes. If he doesn’t, we’ll have to consider what comes next.”

Foxman said he didn’t plan to contact the WJC about the matter.

“I don’t need a personal apology,” he said. “I think the organized Jewish community deserves an apology.”

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