Under Bronfman and Singer, the achievements of the World Jewish Congress could hardly be more impressive. It was the WJC that exposed U.N. secretary-general Kurt Waldheim’s hidden past as a Nazi. When Carmelite nuns wanted to build a convent at Auschwitz, the congress waged a bitter but ultimately successful fight with the Vatican to stop the project. The WJC fought valiantly on behalf of Soviet Jews. And it was Bronfman and his organization that got the Swiss banks to own up to their role during World War II and pay more than a billion dollars in restitution.
Ironically, the root of the WJC’s troubles can be traced to its own Swiss bank account. Israel Singer deposited $1.2 million of WJC funds in a UBS account in Geneva. When the account was discovered—quite by accident—Singer was, particularly early on, less than forthcoming with an explanation. Still, the matter might have quietly gone away had it not been for a raucous political dispute that had erupted between Bronfman and a wealthy, irascible Australian Jew named Isi Leibler.
Leibler, 70, has been involved with the World Jewish Congress as long as Bronfman has. A leader in the Australian Jewish community who turned a local travel agency into a huge, international discount-travel business, Leibler moved to Jerusalem with his family five years ago. He and Bronfman have never really gotten along. In addition to their personal animus, they have passionate, deeply held political differences.
Bronfman, who is closely aligned with Israel’s Labor Party, believes peace between Israel and the Palestinians should be Israel’s overarching priority. He advocates significant compromise with the Palestinians, particularly on territory and the dismantling of Jewish settlements. Leibler takes a much harder line. He is far less interested in compromise with the Palestinians than he is in Israel’s security. Nevertheless, things had been relatively quiet between the two men—until the summer of 2003.
That summer, Bronfman wrote a letter to President Bush, which he got Lawrence Eagleburger to co-sign, urging him to take a more active role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though the letter was fairly evenhanded, it did urge the president to pressure Ariel Sharon to make concessions, and it criticized Israel’s construction of a security fence—referring to it, in what the right views as the language of Israel’s opponents, as a “separation wall.”
“Bronfman sees Singer as his ticket to redemption. He decided rather late that Judaism mattered to him, and Singer has, if you will, koshered him.”
Leibler, a senior vice-president of the WJC, went nuts. Though Bronfman wrote the letter on personal stationery, Leibler contended it still carried the weight and the implied imprimatur of the World Jewish Congress. He was not alone in this feeling.
Finally, in what has been his battle cry ever since, Leibler accused Bronfman (he later broadened the charge to include Israel Singer) of running the World Jewish Congress as a “personal fiefdom” to promote his own agenda and argued that the organization was wholly without accountability and proper governance. He called on Bronfman to apologize for his letter or resign. Of course, Bronfman did neither. Instead, he threatened to have Leibler banished from the WJC.
And then it really got ugly. In an exchange of e-mails with Leibler, Bronfman said, “I’m writing this note despite my distaste for getting into a pissing match with a skunk.” Two days later, he wrote, “When this is over, the person I will feel sorry for is Naomi, your long-suffering wife.”
Bronfman was just as harsh in public. In an interview with The Forward that appeared on August 8, 2003, one day after the “long-suffering wife” e-mail, he called Leibler a “right-wing dog.” In the New York Sun that same day, Bronfman was quoted as saying that Leibler is an “arrogant twit” who “has decided that G-d is dead and he is taking his place.” In the same interview, he said Leibler is “to the right of Genghis Khan and a fool to boot.”
When a reporter from Canada’s National Post asked Bronfman if there were other members of the WJC who were unhappy about his letter to President Bush, he responded, “It’s just one idiot. He can go f--- himself.”
“Bronfman doesn’t like me, and I don’t like him, but that’s not really the point,” says Leibler by phone from his apartment in Jerusalem. “Bronfman is considered to rule practically by divine right. Whenever he gets up and says anything, no matter how stupid, the prevailing attitude is, ‘This guy is paying for everything, so for God’s sake, keep quiet. Don’t upset him.'”