new york | Edgar Bronfman’s resignation as president of the World Jewish Congress put a sudden end to a 30-year reign at one of the world’s best-known Jewish organizations.
The move Monday, May 7 at a WJC steering committee meeting, capped weeks of turmoil in the organization following the March firing of Rabbi Israel Singer, a longtime senior official.
Bronfman’s departure closes a long and fabled era for the organization — an era that included both accomplishment and aggravation.
The WJC governing board will elect a new president June 10 in New York, officials said. The steering committee will convene a nominations committee to consider candidates.
Mendel Kaplan, chairman of the WJC executive, appears to be the leading contender at least as interim president, according to sources. Ronald Lauder, a philanthropist and president of the Jewish National Fund, also could be a candidate.
Kaplan could not be reached. Lauder would not comment, but his special assistant, Warren Kozak, said that it was “way too premature to have this conversation.”
Lauder has said that “until he is sure that there is going to be a fair and transparent election, he is not going to commit one way or the other,” Kozak said.
Matthew Bronfman, Edgar’s son, is not a candidate, according to several sources, although the senior Bronfman reportedly had wanted his son to succeed him.
Edgar Bronfman declined requests for interviews. But his closest associate, WJC Secretary-General Stephen Herbits, said that Bronfman decided to leave because the issue with Singer had been resolved.
“Bronfman has been trying to leave for six years; now he is free to retire because the matter with Singer is closed,” said Herbits, adding that he was informed of Bronfman’s decision only a half-hour before the May 7 meeting.
On Friday, May 4 the WJC had put out a statement through a public relations firm saying that Bronfman, who turns 78 next month, “has no intention of stepping down.”
Herbits said Bronfman’s view changed when the steering committee voted May 7 to “no longer discuss Singer, that the matter is closed for the World Jewish Congress, that it would not have any more business with Israel Singer.”
Pierre Besnainou, head of the European Jewish Congress, said he backed Kaplan to take over the organization.
“We support Mendel Kaplan,” said Besnainou, who had been the fiercest critic of the way Singer’s firing was handled.
Founded in Geneva in 1936, the WJC is the umbrella organization for more than 100 local communities and the putative representative of world Jewry.
Under the leadership of Bronfman and Singer, the WJC played a major role in winning billions of dollars from European banks and governments in restitution for victims of the Holocaust. It also helped to uncover the Nazi past of Kurt Waldheim, a former Austrian president and United Nations secretary-general.
The group had been under a cloud since the revelation several years ago that Singer secretly transferred $1.2 million of WJC money to a Swiss bank account. The money subsequently was returned, but critics say the transfer was never fully explained.
A number of investigations were launched in the wake of that revelation. A 2006 report by the New York State Attorney General’s Office found no evidence of criminality on Singer’s part, but assailed the organization for lax record keeping and said Singer had violated his fiduciary duties by moving money around without proper authorization.
In 2005, a report by the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers sought to analyze a decade’s worth of financial documentation from the WJC office in Geneva but was unable to account for $3.8 million of WJC money. A separate Internal Revenue Service investigation into the organization’s finances is under way.
Asked about a possible return to the WJC after Bronfman’s resignation, Singer said, “I don’t think we have to talk about the future right now, but the answer is, ‘I don’t think so.'”
He added, “Frankly, I worked for 30 years with Edgar Bronfman and we accomplished a tremendous amount in the areas of Soviet Jewry, restitution, Holocaust denial, despite everything that happened in the past few weeks.”
Sources in the WJC said it was just a matter of time before Herbits would leave as well, though Herbits said no one had suggested this at the May 7 meeting.
A former top adviser to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Bronfman’s right-hand man at Seagram, Herbits was brought into the WJC three years ago to clean up things amid charges of mismanagement.
Herbits reportedly derided Besnainou in a private memo in November amid discussion of Matthew Bronfman as a possible successor to his father, saying Besnainou could not be trusted because he’s French and Tunisian and “works like an Arab.”
Besnainou said Herbits had issued a public apology at the meeting and also sent him a written apology. That could not be confirmed with Herbits.
Asked if he had accepted the apology, Besnainou answered, “What can I do?”
In harshly criticizing the March firing of Singer, Besnainou wrote in a memo to EJC board members, “The decision to brutally dismiss Israel Singer is one of the last elements in this long list of unilateral and non-democratic decisions.”
Besnainou said he wasn’t surprised by Bronfman’s resignation; Bronfman had talked about resigning in November, he said.
“The only question was who would succeed him,” Besnainou said.
Another question is where the WJC will head in a post-Bronfman era. While the organization is focused on the threat from Iran, by many accounts it has been searching for the kind of motivating issue it once had in Holocaust restitution and the fight for Soviet Jewry.
The WJC “is in search of a rallying cry to galvanize its constituents,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, chairman of its American section.
“If there had been that kind of issue,” Schneier said, “there wouldn’t have been all this internecine struggle.”