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Machers in Meltdown

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Even some Swiss Jews weren’t happy when the restitution negotiations began. They viewed Bronfman and Singer as American cowboys, Goldberg says, coming over to stomp on their rights. Herbits, who was involved in the negotiations, agrees. “They said, ‘You’re humiliating us and creating anti-Semitism.’”

Herbits was on the first trip with Bronfman when he met the Swiss bankers in 1998. “The bankers there have a club which is in a great, grand old building,” he says. “We were shown to a waiting room, which was very ornate and very beautiful, as you can imagine. Singer, Edgar, and I stood there waiting for 30 minutes.”

The reason they stood, he says, is there were no chairs in the room. “Then the bankers walked in, six or eight of them in a perfectly straight line, just like in a movie,” Herbits continues. “And the first one pulls a statement out of his jacket pocket and reads it to Edgar. No introductions, no handshakes, nothing. We’re about to have lunch with these people, and this is what they do.”

In the statement, they offered Bronfman $37 million if he would simply go away. “The entire world of Swiss restitution would be different if they hadn’t insulted him that way,” Herbits says.

In fact, it didn’t improve much as negotiations moved forward. A little later on, Bronfman, Singer, and Avraham Burg, the former head of Israel’s Labor Party who was then running the Jewish Agency, were seated across the table from the chairman of the Swiss bankers’ association and the chairman of Credit Suisse.

“One of the bankers leaned across the table,” Singer remembers, “and said, ‘You must be mad if you claim that you had hundreds of millions of dollars in our banks. You know, as I do from having seen all the pictures of the Jews of Europe during World War II, that they were all clothed in rags. They were impoverished.’”

Singer, an accomplished, engaging raconteur, believes it was one of the most critical moments in the negotiations. “Edgar looked at them and very quietly but very firmly said, ‘That’s a disgusting thing to say about an entire people. It’s an insulting remark, and I’m very sorry you made it because it will color the nature of our negotiations.’”

“Edgar wasn’t there to negotiate money,” Herbits says. “It was all about the principle, about moral restitution. He wanted an admission that the Swiss had a role in the problem. Their behavior was abominable.”

Herbits has no doubt that a big part of the reason this controversy involving the WJC and Leibler has received so much attention and lasted this long is due to the Swiss component. “There’s just too much glee among some Jews about this. Isn’t it funny, they say, that Singer gets caught up in a secret Swiss bank account. Ultimately, does it hurt the Jews? Of course it does.”

Negotiating an agreement with the Swiss, however, illustrates how effective Bronfman and Singer can be. They know how to play hardball. In Venezuela, there is a small remaining Jewish community of perhaps 25,000 people that has been having problems of late with the government. A couple of months ago, the State Police stormed into the Jewish school and the athletic club. Though the official reason for the raids was that the police were searching for weapons, the real purpose, according to Herbits, was intimidation and harassment.

Community members called the regional office of the Latin American Jewish Congress, which issued a statement and then immediately called New York. Singer, according to Herbits, then called the Venezuelan ambassador to the U.N. and told him there was a problem. “Do you think it would be helpful if Mr. Bronfman flew down and met with President Chávez?” he asked. “Perhaps they can meet and then hold a joint press conference with the international media where they can issue a statement that your country is beating the shit out of its Jews.”

The ambassador got the message. “That’s how this organization takes care of small communities,” Herbits says. “That’s the mission, and they do it all over the world.” a couple of weeks ago, the World Jewish Congress held an emergency session in Brussels. It was the organization’s first worldwide meeting in more than four years. Though no one will admit it, it was called because of l’affaire Leibler. Bronfman, Singer, and Herbits knew they couldn’t stop the attorney general’s investigation, but they could at least put an end to the battle within the organization.

Leibler knew he’d be overmatched if he went to Brussels, but he was determined to have his say. As he drove through the streets of Jerusalem on his way to the airport, he could see the posters that had been put up all over the city calling him a traitor to the Jewish people for telling tales about the community to outsiders.

In Brussels, where Leibler was promised 30 minutes of speaking time, 40 minutes were spent debating whether to let him talk at all. In the end, he got less than 10 minutes from the floor, not the podium, and he could barely be heard over those trying to shout him down. As he expected, he was not reelected to his post as vice-president.

When Bronfman addressed the organization’s assembled representatives, he didn’t mention the conflict at all. He talked only about the future. And he left no doubt about his feelings for Singer. Near the end of his remarks, he said no one has done more for the Jewish people than Singer. Then, in full view of Israeli TV cameras, he walked over to Singer, kissed him, and said, “I love you.” As far as Herbits, Bronfman, and Singer are concerned, they have put the entire matter behind them. Though Herbits says the WJC has instituted a host of changes in its administrative practices, he will not give Leibler any credit for the changes. He argues they would have happened anyway. There is still the looming problem of the New York State attorney general’s inquiry. To date, the WJC has spent more than $1 million on the crisis, including PR reps and several audits, the latest by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Leibler says, however, it’s a gloss over the books, not an in-depth look.

Herbits says he wants a definitive statement from the attorney general’s office that will end the discussion once and for all. Somewhat surprisingly, he adds, “Then we’ll know if Leibler was right or wrong.”

But even if the World Jewish Congress is cleared, the damage may already have been done. “These are difficult times,” says one insider, “and it pains me greatly that everyone in the Jewish community will pay a price for what’s happened. All we have is our credibility, and it’s very tough to get it back.”


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