Herbits has an explanation for each of these events that has nothing to do with the $1.2 million. The Geneva office was actually closed, he argues, not by Singer but by the Operations Committee. However, like many of the details in this story, truth is in the eye of the beholder. Leibler counters, of course, that the committee closed the office because they were talked into it by Singer.
Similarly, according to Herbits, the employee terminations had nothing to do with any of them seeking a full accounting of the $1.2 million. He says Lack and Singer never got along and Lack was a disgruntled employee. Beker simply wasn’t working out as secretary-general, and so on. His bottom line is this: No one thought anything was amiss until after getting fired and being angry about it. Then, he claims, they tried to stoke the fires of controversy to get even. But as someone once said, it all seems too coincidental to be coincidental.
“Look,” Herbits says, “you can make an issue out of this because it smells. It looks bad. And it wasn’t perfectly done. There’s not a board of director’s signature on each transaction. But is there anything illegal? Is there anything criminal? Absolutely not.”
The issue, however, may not be so clear. Though Leibler has been very careful not to accuse Singer of anything illegal, he says, “you can read my mind.” One insider told me Singer’s strategy has been to promote the notion that after a lifetime of hard work devoted to the Jewish community, he is entitled to be compensated, that he has earned the money. And the mom-and-pop governance style Bronfman fostered gave Singer license to operate in a gray area.
“You have to understand,” this source says, “that Singer would say things like, ‘Maybe I wasn’t as careful with the administrative things as I should’ve been, but I was too busy defending the Jewish people.’ It sounds so noble, but the truth is to be found elsewhere. Proper administration of the organization would only have diminished his power and access to funds.”
In fact, in September, Singer told The Forward , in an attempt to explain the $1.2 million account, that the Jewish Agency placed the money in a New York account, “in recognition of his work on behalf of the Jewish people. The idea,” The Forward reported, “was to establish a fund that possibly would be used to fund his pension.” (The Jewish Agency has repeatedly denied this.) In August 2004, at the insistence of Leibler and Steinberg, the other member of the Operations Committee, the $1.2 million was finally returned to the WJC in New York. Leibler, meanwhile, wrote a fifteen-plus-page memo he planned to give to Bronfman, detailing what he believed were the organization’s key problems with administration, transparency, and accountability.
Leibler is adamant that the memo was for internal use only. Somehow Singer got his hands on a copy before Leibler formally presented it to Bronfman and the board, and he took it to The Jewish Week, which ran a significant story. Leibler claims that computer experts have confirmed his suspicion that someone hacked into his computer and stole the memo.
Singer refused to answer any questions from The Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt about how he got the memo.
“Singer must’ve believed he could control the debate by doing this,” Leibler says. “He must’ve believed he could portray me as a madman who was trying to destroy his reputation and the organization because I was power hungry. And because I was jealous of him and Bronfman.”
By late last summer, the still-unexplained Swiss account, the problems at the WJC, and the feuding among its leaders became a major story in the Jewish media. Leibler was ranting to anyone who’d listen, while Singer and Bronfman hunkered down and ignored the calls for a comprehensive independent audit. Stonewalling made them look guilty of something, even if they weren’t.
“They can say whatever they want about me,” Leibler says, “but if they had nothing to hide, why was there such a hysterical response to my calls for a full audit?”
Herbits came onboard just before Labor Day. It is easy to see why Bronfman called him, even though Herbits hadn’t worked for him in seven years. Herbits, a longtime confidant of Donald Rumsfeld, has the kind of prodigious political talent that enabled him to be openly gay and sometimes outspoken on gay-rights issues and still serve at the highest levels of the Defense Department for every Republican president since Richard Nixon. His Pentagon specialty is personnel, and he played a key consulting role in helping Rumsfeld fill more than 40 critical positions.
Herbits says that, like the fired Geneva employees, Leibler has acted out of anger. He didn’t begin writing his memo until after he knew the Operations Committee was going to be disbanded and he would lose his power. “The idea that he wrote the memo as a white knight,” Herbits says, “that he’s a whistle-blower who just wanted to fix the institution and they wouldn’t let him, is pure bullshit.”
A disinterested third party with inside knowledge sees it differently. “The attempts to paint Isi Leibler as power hungry and as a right-wing nut are nothing more than a distraction,” says the source. “It’s simply an effort to discredit him and take the focus off the issues he’s raised.”
The World Jewish Congress was started in 1936 by Nahum Goldmann as a way of mobilizing Jews to protest the Nazis. Goldmann, a legendary figure in twentieth-century Jewish history, was also president of the World Zionist Organization, and he negotiated the early postwar reparations with Germany.
By the mid-fifties, as president of the World Jewish Congress, he was recognized by the U.N. as the spokesman for the world’s Jewish community. Though times have changed, it is a mantle of responsibility and authority that Bronfman now holds.