NEW YORK (JTA) — The sudden dismissal of a longtime power broker from the World Jewish Congress won’t harm the organization going forward, its secretary general said this week, dismissing threats from several international affiliates to withdraw from the organization.
Two days after President Edgar Bronfman announced that the group was severing all ties with Rabbi Israel Singer, a longtime official and chairman of the WJC’s policy board, Secretary-General Stephen Herbits was eager to emphasize the positive.
In an interview with JTA on March 16, Herbits pointed to the organization’s “extraordinary track record ” and insisted that Singer’s dismissal would not be a hindrance moving forward.
“The implication that we can’t move forward without Israel Singer is garbage, ” Herbits told JTA. “His own behavior drove him out, and over time that will become obvious to everybody, especially the more noise he makes about it. “
Singer’s dismissal, announced in a conference call Wednesday with members of the organization’s steering committee, prompted outraged responses from affiliated groups around the world.
Israeli WJC officials were incensed as well by Bronfman’s announcement, also made during the Wednesday call, to fire Bobby Brown, director-general of the Israel branch, and to cut off the branch’s funding.
WJC Israel officials have been skirmishing for months with New York over the attempt to install Oded Eran, Israel’s current ambassador to the European Union, as the branch’s director.
Founded in Geneva in 1936, the WJC is the umbrella organization for more than 100 local communities and is the putative representative of world Jewry. But that coalition appeared in danger of fracturing as two congressional affiliates threatened to quit the organization in the wake of Bronfman’s announcement.
“Just because Mr. Bronfman has taken a decision, that does mean the end of Israel Singer, although it might mean the end of the World Jewish Congress, ” Ariel Muzicant, vice president of the European Jewish Congress and longtime leader of the Viennese Jewish community, told JTA. “Most of the European Jewish communities, Israel and South America are considering taking very serious steps because we will not tolerate such actions from Mr. Bronfman. “
In the hours after the conference call, two international affiliates submitted letters of protest to Bronfman.
Pierre Besnainou, the head of the European Jewish Congress, conveyed his “strong disappointment ” with the call and urged Bronfman not to take any further action other than ordering an audit of the Israeli branch, or the Europeans may consider withdrawing temporarily from the WJC.
The Israel branch issued a similar threat, calling the conference call illegal because its microphones apparently were inoperable, rendering the branch unable to voice opposition to the proceedings. Besnainou also reported trouble with his microphone.
Herbits denied any suggestion of foul play with the microphones and said an inquiry was under way.
“We are disgusted by what has just transpired, ” steering committee members Mati Droblas and Shai Hermesh wrote in a letter to Bronfman.
They said they considered the decisions announced during the call “null and void ” and demanded a face-to-face meeting of the committee, or they would put forth a motion to withdraw the Israel branch from the WJC.
The European Jewish Congress is holding a conference call among its 20 executive board members Tuesday as well as some additional participants, heads of Jewish communities from various European countries, to discuss how to respond to the WJC handling of Singer’s firing. The EJC is comprised of leaders of Jewish communities from 41 countries.
WJC officials acknowledged a “tremendous debt of gratitude ” to Singer for his decades of service, but would not disclose the reasons for his dismissal. Herbits said any further information that comes out regarding Singer’s dismissal would have “serious legal repercussions, ” though he declined to elaborate.
Singer has been with the World Jewish Congress for more than 30 years and is considered one of the Jewish world’s most prominent officials.
A former chairman and secretary-general of the WJC — and a top official of the Claims Conference and the World Jewish Restitution Organization — Singer played a major role in winning billions of dollars from European banks and governments in restitution for victims of the Holocaust.
He also helped to uncover the Nazi past of Kurt Waldheim, a former Austrian president and United Nations secretary-general.
Singer has been under a cloud since the revelation several years ago that he 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 Price Waterhouse Coopers sought to analyze a decade’s worth of financial documentation from WJC’s Geneva office 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.
This week’s developments come against the backdrop of a budding struggle for leadership of the group between two American billionaires, Bronfman and cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder.
Lauder recently announced his plans to run for the WJC leadership. That puts him on a collision course with Bronfman, who reportedly wants his son Matthew to succeed him. Lauder has charged that Matthew Bronfman lacks the experience for the job.