December 28, 2001
By NACHA CATTAN
Eight weeks after reelecting Edgar Bronfman by acclaim to a fifth term as president, the World Jewish Congress is wracked by an open struggle to determine Mr. Bronfman's successor and set the organization's future agenda.
At issue is whether WJC, considered one of the world's most powerful Jewish organizations, should follow its recent successes in securing Holocaust restitution by launching a new campaign to combat assimilation in the Diaspora or by focusing its energies on defending Israel from its enemies.
The struggle comes as the organization prepares to move its headquarters from New York to Jerusalem and hand the keys over to a new chief of staff.
Mr. Bronfman confirmed in an exclusive interview with the Forward that he intends to step down from the presidency in two years, midway through his term. He said that he hopes to install as his successor his longtime protégé, Rabbi Israel Singer, who retired as WJC's secretary-general this past fall and became chairman of its board of governors. Rabbi Singer has been succeeded as the organization's top professional by the head of the organization's Jerusalem office, Avi Beker.
Mr. Bronfman said he and Rabbi Singer hope to bring about a merger of two other organizations that distribute billions of dollars in Holocaust restitution payments - which WJC helped secure - under one umbrella group that would allocate funds for programs advancing Jewish education and continuity.
Opposing them is a senior vice president of WJC, Australian travel magnate Isi Leibler, who has called on the organization to train its main energies on defending Israel. Mr. Leibler has expressed his support of cosmetics heir and Jewish National Fund president Ronald Lauder to succeed Mr. Bronfman as WJC president.
"For the last 10 years I have said Jewish education is the most important factor for the future survival of the Jewish Diaspora," Mr. Leibler said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem, where he now lives. "However, today, with Israel facing an existential struggle, support for Israel should be the number one item on the international Jewish agenda, including the WJC, because in the absence of Israel
there is no future for the Jewish people."
But according to Mr. Bronfman, 72, who has led WJC for the past 20 years with a firm grip and deep pockets, the greatest threat to the Jewish people is the growing number of young Jews who know nothing about their heritage.
"We've always been fully supportive of Israel," Mr. Bronfman said. "But the new mission of the World Jewish Congress is to see to it that as many young Jews as possible get a Jewish education, so at least if they opt out [of religion] they would know what they're leaving."
Mr. Leibler, like Mr. Lauder, is an outspoken supporter of the Likud party. In November, Mr. Leibler strongly criticized Mr. Bronfman in a Jerusalem Post op-ed after Mr. Bronfman called on the Israeli government to dismantle settlements that could not be defended.
"Most Israelis," Mr. Leibler wrote, "do not take kindly to, indeed resent, being admonished by a Jew domiciled in New York, however prominent he is."
The dispute comes on the heels of another major staff change. Elan Steinberg, WJC's executive director for 15 years, will step down March 1, 2002, to work for a financial consulting firm. Mr. Steinberg denied reports that he is stepping down because he was passed over for the post of secretary-general.
Mr. Bronfman said he would replace Mr. Steinberg, whom he called a "good soldier," with one or two professionals in New York.
Mr. Bronfman and Rabbi Singer denied Mr. Leibler's assertion that Mr. Beker had been named secretary-general in order to strengthen WJC's Israel agenda. Rather, Mr. Bronfman said the organization's nominating committee had chosen Mr. Beker because his close ties to European Jewish communities and the Israeli government would help him bolster a fledgling fund for Jewish education, known as the Fund for the Jewish People.
Another way Mr. Bronfman plans to drum up support for his Jewish-education initiative, he said, is to work to install either Rabbi Singer or himself as the president of the primary distributing body for Holocaust reparations funds, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. Rabbi Singer would not confirm or deny his candidacy for either the presidency of WJC or the Claims Conference. Mr. Bronfman, who earned his billions as head of his family's Seagram spirits and entertainment corporation, said he would not decrease his donations to WJC if Rabbi Singer succeeds him as president. Rabbi Singer said Mr. Bronfman contributes between 15% and 20% of WJC's $5.5 million budget.
Mr. Bronfman said he will work to merge the Claims Conference with another distribution group, the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which works to recover property lost by Holocaust victims in various European countries. The goal of the merger, Mr. Bronfman said, is that monies unclaimed or unneeded by survivors or their heirs - which may total in the billions of dollars - can be gathered and parceled out to education programs worldwide.
The WJC was originally constituted in 1936 as a European-based confederation of national Jewish representative bodies in various countries around the world. Since moving its headquarters to the United States in 1979, it has solicited individual dues-paying members, who now number some 250,000, the organization says. The organization claims a lean but politically connected administration that has recently captured headlines in its aggressive fight for restitution. Rabbi Singer said WJC employs 50 to 70 administrators, support staff and consultants in offices in seven major cities, including Geneva and Paris.
In addition to confronting Swiss banks, the organization has been known in recent years for its confrontations with the Vatican and with former Austrian President Kurt Waldheim over their Holocaust-era activities. It also acted as a behind-the-scenes negotiator on behalf of Soviet Jews.
Although many WJC executives support a Claims Conference/WJRO merger, the president of the Claims Conference for the past 20 years
Rabbi Israel Miller, said he is concerned that survivors may be sidelined in the process.
"I have reason to be concerned that if there is a merging, that survivors would be diluted, although not un-represented in the decision making," Rabbi Miller said. "We have money allocated mainly for the benefit of survivors, and I fear very much this would not happen if there are not the kind of controls that we have now."
Rabbi Singer's chief rival for the presidency of the Claims Conference is said to be a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, New York attorney Julius Berman. Mr. Berman is chairman of the board of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University.
"From my standpoint , Rabbi Israel Miller - who should live to be 120 and well - is the president of the organization. Any discussion about his successor would be totally premature, inappropriate and unseemly," Mr. Berman said.
As reported last week in the Forward, the Fund for the Jewish People has come under fire from Holocaust survivor organizations, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Committee. Among the various complaints are claims that the fund would divert monies that properly belong to survivors, and that it might compete unnecessarily with other similar programs.
As most of the largest restitution settlements wind down, and survivors continue to age and pass on, Jewish community leaders say funds from heirless properties and humanitarian payments are going to become a main source of funding for the Jewish people.
"Unclaimed assets is going to be the largest single resource of Jewish funds to answer Jewish needs," Bobby Brown, senior advisor to Jewish Agency for Israel chairman Sallai Meridor, told the Forward. "And whoever controls those restitution funds will to a large extent mold the future of the Jewish communities around the world."
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