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Machers in Meltdown

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Stephen Herbits, Bronfman's designated mouthpiece and crisis manager.  

Leibler has a point. Justified or not, there is a fear of Bronfman and Singer in the organized Jewish world. It is a small community, and no one wants to risk getting shut out. “Those who know the WJC from up close,” says one insider, “understood long ago that it was being run as the personal agency of Edgar Bronfman and Israel Singer, with insufficient oversight, and no proper governing structure.”

It was almost impossible to get anyone to speak candidly on the record about either man. “There’s wholesale cowardice going on here,” says one Jewish leader with too much to lose to let me use his name.

This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why Leibler finds himself with so little public support. “Nobody takes Bronfman on,” he says. “But I don’t give a stuff about him. I’ve never respected him. There’s nothing there to respect. He’s not exactly a great intellect.”

For years, Bronfman single-handedly provided funding for the World Jewish Congress, writing an annual check to keep it going. He also used his power, prestige, and substantial personal contacts on behalf of the WJC, and it is difficult to imagine that the organization could’ve accomplished much without him.

There is a certain Wizard of Oz quality to the WJC. When you pull back the curtain, there’s not a whole lot there other than the implied power that comes from representing the world’s Jewish communities. Its primary mission is fighting anti-Semitism, and it responds, when crises occur, on a situational basis. Unlike the American Jewish Committee or the Anti-Defamation League, which have annual budgets that are at least four or five times that of the congress, the WJC does not run any ongoing programs or have any kind of infrastructure. The New York office, which is its world headquarters, has nine employees.

Leibler says that when Bronfman’s money was the only thing keeping the organization alive, you could make the argument that he was entitled to do whatever he wanted. “It’s still a public organization, and it’s still not nice, but I can see how he’d justify it.”

About fifteen years ago, the WJC began raising money through direct mail. Today, its annual budget is approximately $10 million, of which Bronfman kicks in about $2 million. The rest comes from contributors, just about all of them American. A lot of the contributions come in the form of $18 checks accompanied by notes in the frail handwriting of the elderly that say things like “Please help save the Jews.” (Jews often contribute in multiples of 18, the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word chai, or “life,” which is considered good luck.)

Despite the ugly sniping over Bronfman’s letter and Israeli politics, the two men did come to at least a sort of temporary cold peace, if not quite a rapprochement. In fall 2003, a compromise was reached. To begin reforming the way the WJC was run, a three-man Operations Committee was appointed to oversee the workings of the organization. It included Leibler and Singer, as well as Elan Steinberg, another longtime WJC official.

Almost a year of relative calm followed the creation of the Operations Committee—and then the real problems started. In July 2004, a Swiss lawyer named Daniel Lack, who had suddenly been dismissed after 29 years in the WJC Geneva office, informed the Operations Committee of the $1.2 million Swiss bank account.

The story he told was essentially the following: Over a five-month period, Israel Singer quietly made five deposits totaling $1.2 million into a UBS account in Geneva. The last deposit, $200,000, was made in February 2003.

The money, according to Singer, came from a $1.5 million payment to the World Jewish Congress by the Jewish Agency in Israel. The two organizations have a historical link, and for years, whenever money was available, the Jewish Agency has contributed to the WJC.

As putative head of the organization, Singer—who relinquished the secretary-general’s title almost two years ago—had acted on his own. None of the people in charge of the WJC office in Geneva knew about the bank account.

However, when a young lawyer named Maya Ben-Haim Rosen was hired to run the Geneva office, she found that the bookkeeper was overpaying himself by $1,900 a month. She wanted to fire him immediately, but couldn’t because he was in the hospital recuperating from a heart ailment. At a meeting in London on June 29, 2003, she told the details to Singer and Avi Beker, who had replaced Singer as secretary-general of the WJC. The date is important because two days later, Singer flew to Geneva.

He located the bookkeeper and literally got him out of his convalescent bed. Singer took the bookkeeper to the bank, and had him sign off on a transfer of the funds to a London account held by an Israeli lawyer.

Leibler claims the people in the Geneva office only found out about the account several months later, in October, when the bank sent an overdraft notice. Since the account had been emptied, there were no funds to cover the $40 transfer fee.

Herbits argues vehemently, however, that the information was readily available to the people in the Geneva office. All they had to do was look for it.

Maya Ben-Haim Rosen was authorized to investigate the account. But over the next several months, she, along with Beker and Daniel Lack (the longtime legal adviser in the Geneva office), all of whom had pushed for a full investigation of the account, were dismissed. And the Geneva office, where the World Jewish Congress began 68 years ago, was closed. Beker, who had been secretary-general for only a year, was given a seven-figure payment that included a confidentiality agreement. Rosen also received a buyout that stipulated silence.


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