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Wjc Debates a New Focus Amid Changes in Leadership

January 16, 2002
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At first glance, the brouhaha at the World Jewish Congress appears to be a power struggle over the future leadership and direction of one of Diaspora Jewry’s primary defenders.

But the shakeup at the WJC, which boasts representatives in 80 countries, also exposes a tangle of subplots that touch on some of the major Jewish issues of the day: the priorities for world Jewry, the defense of Israel and the fate of Holocaust-related assets.

Myriad factors are fracturing the WJC’s successful, long-running triumvirate: President Edgar Bronfman may step down in two years; Secretary-General Israel Singer is leaving the staff, though he will retain his influence as a lay leader; and Elan Steinberg, the group’s executive director, will depart March 1 after being passed over as Singer’s replacement.

And with the WJC declaring victory in the Jewish quest for Holocaust reparations, the group appears to be looking for a new raison d’etre.

Some senior leaders are seeking to move the group toward pro-Israel advocacy, while others, including Bronfman and Singer, want to turn their attention to Jewish education as the weapon to combat assimilation and intermarriage in the Diaspora.

The WJC was founded in 1936, according to the 2001 American Jewish Yearbook, to “intensify bonds of world Jewry with Israel, strengthen solidarity among Jews everywhere and secure their rights, status, and interests as individuals and communities” and “encourage Jewish social, religious and cultural life throughout the world.”

Over the past two decades, the WJC has been a three-man show, with a bare-bones staff beneath them.

Bronfman was perched at the helm with his towering wealth and political influence, funding 15 to 20 percent of the WJC’s $5.5 million budget.

Then came Singer, the rabbi-politician, and Steinberg, who skillfully used the media and applied political pressure.

Together the threesome claimed credit for working behind the scenes to help free Soviet Jewry, shining a spotlight on Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi past and encouraging Washington to ban him from visiting the United States, and lobbying the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.

But it’s the WJC role in helping to capture up to $11 billion in restitution that is seen as its crowning achievement.

The WJC took on, among others, Swiss banks that concealed dormant accounts of Jewish victims; German industry that profited from slave and forced labor; European institutions that held looted artwork; and European insurers that didn’t pay out claims.

One WJC admirer said the confrontation with Austria and Waldheim in the 1980s was a watershed that emboldened Jews to go after other friendly European governments in the 1990s.

“For years the WJC has functioned with tenacity, moxie and a willingness to stand up to entire governments for a cause,” said Neal Sher, who worked closely with the WJC on the Waldheim affair from 1985 to 1987 as head of the U.S. Justice Department’s Nazi-prosecuting Office of Special Investigations.

“If you’re fighting in the halls of Congress, the State Department and the White House to protect Jews around the world, you’ve got to be that tough.”

The group had its share of critics, too, some of whom felt that the strong-arm tactics fueled misperceptions of Jewish influence and created problems for local Jewish communities.

Now the group’s leaders are debating the group’s future direction.

Isi Leibler, WJC’s senior vice president, is tugging the group in the direction of pro-Israel advocacy.

Indeed, the new secretary-general, Avi Beker, will for the first time be based in Jerusalem, though Singer contends the political base will remain in New York.

“Israel is going through an existential crisis with its neighbors, and without Israel, there cannot be any future for the Jewish people,” said Leibler, an Australian travel magnate now residing in Israel.

“Any organization that claims to be an umbrella of the whole Jewish community that does not today have Israel as its No. 1 focus would not be worthy of being described as a leading Jewish umbrella body,” Leibler said.

But Singer says strengthening Jewish identity in the Diaspora bolsters Jewish support for Israel.

And the way to do that, in a post-Sept. 11 world, is to protect Jews physically while nourishing them spiritually, Singer said.

The WJC, he said, will work to create an international network — from New York to Jerusalem, from Paris to Buenos Aires — to inform communities worldwide as to who is making threats against Jews and how to protect Jewish institutions.

“But we cannot only fight our enemies and defend the Jewish body alone,” Singer said.

“Our goal is to create certain principles of Jewish continuity, to re-establish Jewish knowledge among younger Jews and older Jews, to create a worldwide renaissance of Jewish interest in Jewish values, so that they know what it means to be Jewish.”

Debate over the direction of the WJC reveals a second subplot: jousting over how to spend — and who should control — hundreds of millions of dollars potentially left over from the billions of Holocaust restitution paid by European countries to survivors and families of victims.

Others assert it’s all been allocated and nothing will remain, or insist that whatever is recovered in the name of survivors must go to survivors, and nothing should remain.

The WJC is not the sole arbiter in these money matters.

But it’s a prominent voice within the 24-member Claims Conference, which handles restitution from Germany and Austria, and the 10-member World Jewish Restitution Organization, which manages reparations from the rest of Europe.

Bronfman was the WJRO chairman. Singer is the Claims Conference vice president, was its lead negotiator and serves on the Conference’s many different committees.

Still unknown is who will succeed Bronfman, and whether the group will lose it’s clout without him.

Bronfman is 72, and after 21 years as WJC president, seemed ready to relinquish the post last year.

But he reconsidered when a challenge emerged from Ronald Lauder, the cosmetics magnate who recently served as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

It’s unclear whether the tension is based on personal rivalry, ideological differences or Bronfman’s possible distrust of Lauder to carry forth his restitution legacy or to keep the WJC focus on the Diaspora, rather than Israel.

Bronfman was re-elected last fall, but the Forward newspaper recently reported his plan to step down in two years, midway through his term, and to “install” Singer as his replacement.

Bronfman could not be reached for comment. But Richard Marker, executive vice president of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, said Bronfman is “not sure if he’s going to serve out the full” five-year term.

At the same time, Singer and Steinberg appear to have had a falling out in a clash of ego and ambition, observers say.

Steinberg, who is leaving March 1, indicates he is now headed for a job in the private sector, though he will continue in the lay position of executive vice president.

For his part, Singer, who said he is handling the transition probably until the end of February, is assuming the post of chairman of the WJC board of governors, the No. 2 lay leader behind Bronfman and will return to university teaching and writing a book on his restitution battles.

He also said he will encourage Bronfman to finish out his five-year term.

As chairman, it will allow more time for strategic thinking, Singer told JTA, but some suspect he will retain control and deny Beker the latitude as secretary-general that he himself enjoyed.

Some also believe Singer may be seeking not only the WJC presidency, but also to become president of the Claims Conference.

But Singer said he would push for Bronfman to head the Claims Conference.

The long-time Claims Conference chief, Rabbi Israel Miller, is in poor health.

Only time will tell where the WJC is headed.

“Transitions can lead to one of two possibilities: either greater successes, which is wished for fondly, or a diminution of such achievements,” Steinberg said.

For his part, Singer said the WJC will be “more effective” as time goes on.

“Individuals are important, but organizations have a way of surviving individuals leaving them,” he said.

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