AJCongress Chair On The Hot Seat
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Jack Rosen, the chairman of the American Jewish Congress, may well face the first serious challenge to his longtime, dominant leadership of the organization at an executive board meeting scheduled for Jan. 30. Some members of the board of trustees are expressing deep frustration and anger over Rosen’s alleged autocratic style, most recently over his decision to appoint Israel Singer chairman of the international policy council of the Council for World Jewry — an AJCongress offshoot Rosen helped create and chairs — after Singer was ousted from the World Jewish Congress for alleged financial misdeeds. "Not only was it embarrassing to the name of the American Jewish Congress to try to resuscitate the reputation of someone associated with financial wrongdoings," one board member said, "but Jack acted unilaterally, against the rules. Most of us didn’t even know about it until we read about it." ("Israel Singer Back In Leadership Role," Jewish Week, Nov. 30.) Several of those close to the current situation, who requested anonymity for fear of angering Rosen, charged the chairman with a lack of accountability and a disregard for democratic process, which they said was antithetical to the principles of the AJCongress. "Leadership of the Congress should be about honesty, character and integrity, but Jack is a bully who intimidates anyone who questions his decisions," said one. "He sees the organization as his personal fiefdom," said another. "It’s all about ego and power, and he is doing a colossal disservice to the American Jewish Congress and the Jewish people." Some said they would call for a split between the Council and the Congress. "I hope there is a divorce between the two groups," one senior board member said, "and the Congress can be a healthy and transparent organization and let Jack have his Council." Among the issues raised by some board members is a concern that Rosen is so focused on the work of and support for the Council for World Jewry that his efforts on its behalf are a liability to the AJCongress, financially and in terms of reputation. What’s particularly noteworthy is that these complaints are coming from a board that Rosen has played a major role in selecting and which includes his son, Daniel Rosen, and his brother, Joseph Rosen, as well as his attorney, business associates and politicians whose campaigns he supports financially, according to critics within the organization. For his part, Rosen, 62, appears determined to stay above the fray. In an interview at the Midtown office of his real estate company on Monday, he said he views most of the criticism as the usual complaints of a handful of naysayers, which he calls characteristic of Jewish organizational life. Though known to possess a sharp temper — a shouting match he had several weeks ago with Neil Goldstein, the executive director of AJCongress, was heard throughout the group’s offices, staffers say — Rosen responded patiently on hearing the litany of charges made by board members. He pointed out that as a sign of democracy he has kept on the AJCongress board those critics who disagree with him. "The mutterings will go on, that’s healthy," he said, noting: "I’ve allowed myself to be challenged and I don’t win every vote." He added that he would prefer critics on the board to speak up at meetings rather than anonymously, to the press. He acknowledged that some do not like his style, but said that "a leader must balance consultation with timing — you can’t always run to the board" for input. He asserted that he had made "no major decisions" without consulting with the board. Showdown Over Singer Was the Singer appointment a minor decision? Rosen did not respond directly, though he acknowledged there were some leaders who did not know about the move, and he said that in retrospect, he probably should have been more sensitive to the concerns of those who opposed his choice of Singer. Indeed, it seemed that appointment by Rosen caused some long-simmering tensions to boil over at the last executive committee meeting of the AJCongress, held on a mid-December evening, when several of the 20 members openly challenged Rosen about his Singer decision. According to some in attendance, the critics were not only upset with the choice, but that Rosen, who as chair is bound to consult and coordinate with the leadership of the Congress, appointed Singer, despite being advised not to by the president and executive director. A report two years ago by the New York State Attorney General on alleged corruption within the World Jewish Congress found no criminal wrongdoing but said Singer violated his fiduciary responsibilities and had to pay back to the WJC several hundred thousand dollars that he had used personally. He was later fired by then-WJC president Edgar Bronfman, who accused Singer of stealing from him. In The Jewish Week’s article in November announcing the appointment of Singer to the Council for World Jewry post, Rosen praised Singer’s leadership over the years and said it was "morally wrong to taint anyone based on rumors. He hasn’t been proven to have done anything wrong or unethical." One senior person on the board said Rosen’s move was embarrassing to the Congress. "People in the Jewish community think we’re either irresponsible, in denial, or tainted ourselves." The executive committee that night also called for a more comprehensive policy on ethics and potential conflicts of interest, and the formation of a committee to explore the confusing relationship between the Congress and the Council, both of which Rosen chairs. According to participants at the meeting, Rosen’s closest allies on the board did not rise to defend him. And Rosen, who had never been challenged in such a way before by the board, held his temper until late in the meeting, when he spoke sharply, defended Singer as an outstanding Jewish leader, and warned members not to speak to the press. In the end, participants said, Rosen backed down and agreed to contact Singer and disinvite him from the voluntary position on the Council. But Singer told The Jewish Week on Jan. 11, more than three weeks later: "I am the chairman" of the international policy council of the Council on World Jewry. "I work closely with Jack, who is one of the most creative and original thinkers I know," he said, adding: "I met with him last week. I didn’t get disinvited, there was no real invitation. I am not associated with the American Jewish Congress, I’m associated with the president of the Council [Rosen], advising them." When told of this apparent contradiction at The Jewish Week interview on Monday, Rosen said Singer must have been referring to "another council that he [Singer] runs." He said he informed Singer of the change in status "several weeks ago." Then Rosen handed this reporter a two-sentence press release on Council letterhead, dated that day [Jan. 14] that read: "Rabbi Israel Singer has no official relationship or position and does not speak for the Council for World Jewry. We hope this clarifies any confusion." Confusing Relationship On the contrary. Rosen’s and Singer’s responses add to the uncertainty even among Congress board members about the relationship between their organization and the Council, which, ironically, was created in 2003 to avoid a showdown between Rosen and his critics on the board of the Congress. At the time, Rosen was said to be interested in seeking a third term as president of the American Jewish Congress, where he had gone from no involvement to president in 1998. Before then, Rosen, a child of Holocaust survivors, had little connection to the organized Jewish community. A man of considerable wealth, charm and contacts in high places, he is considered a bit of a mystery by those in Jewish communal life. He has been a health care executive and real estate developer. He was also a major player in the Democratic National Committee as fund-raiser and contributor. Once close to President Clinton, Rosen later became a supporter of President Bush. He came to the attention of the AJCongress through real estate. In the late 1990s, when the Congress was in serious financial trouble and in discussions about a possible merger with the American Jewish Committee, Rosen was approached by a lay leader of the Congress about becoming involved. Rosen had purchased two buildings near the then-headquarters of the Congress, an historic building on East 84th Street, and lived in one. He became president of the Congress and pledged to help bail it out of its financial difficulties. Rosen says he became involved "to give something back to the community," and that he has succeeded in taking "a dying institution" and making it "healthy." He said the AJCongress has become stronger, "a voice for the Jewish community, and has done a lot of good things." But some insiders say Rosen centralized the organization and took it over, replacing a number of longtime board members with friends and business associates and amending the constitution to solidify his control. In addition, they say his annual gifts to the organization in recent years have been "minimal — four figures," said one insider, who noted that at least one board member contributes $200,000 annually. Rosen would not comment on his donations. Over the last decade, a time when the East 84th Street building was sold and the Congress moved to its current Midtown location, Rosen streamlined the activities of the organization, particularly on the domestic front — a combination of cost-saving and a new focus on foreign relations. He says he did not push the group toward world affairs; "it’s more that world affairs — with the intifada, terrorism and anti-Semitism — pushed us." Creating the American Jewish Congress Council for World Jewry in 2003 as an autonomous body allowed Rosen to concentrate on international politics while permitting someone else to become president of the Congress. (The presidency is now held by Richard Gordon, a local attorney appointed by Rosen but said to be increasingly concerned about his activities and methods.) Though the agreement called for the new Council to work collaboratively with the executive committee of the Congress, leaders today say they do not even know who is on the board of the Council beside Rosen — several called it "a one-man show" — and acknowledge that there is virtually no consultation between the two groups, a charge Rosen denies. According to the Council’s public tax documents, its board is made up of 27 people, mostly American, but including the Bukharian Jewish billionaire, Lev Leviev, who lives in Israel; Len Blavatnik, a Russian-born billionaire living in New York and London; and the Russian oligarch Mikhail Fridman. (Rosen is on the advisory board of Fridman’s Russian conglomerate, Alfa Group, whose subsidiary company, Altimo, does business with Iran. When asked about this, Rosen said that "as an adviser, I urged that they get out of that business and have been assured they are in the process of doing so.") Some AJCongress leaders suspect that Rosen urges friends and associates on the Congress board to contribute to the Council, in addition to — and sometimes rather than — the Congress. They say there is a pattern of Congress contributors close to Rosen reducing their gifts to the Congress. Rosen denies the charge and says that not more than a handful of Congress members, himself included, split their gifts to the two organizations. Musharraf An Ally? The Council’s most notable achievement to date was sponsoring a major dinner in New York in September 2005 honoring President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, which Rosen called "a historic moment." He praised Musharraf’s policy of "enlightened moderation," which called for "a new Islamic society based on pluralism and tolerance." But some Jewish leaders were disappointed that Musharraf’s speech that night described the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a root cause of world terror, and said full diplomatic relations between Pakistan and Israel would come only after the creation of a Palestinian state. Rosen has maintained what he calls "a fairly close relationship" with Musharraf for years, and visited him in Pakistan after the leader declared martial law several months ago. Rosen asserts the importance of maintaining relations with the leader of a Muslim nation with nuclear power. Some AJCongress leaders say Rosen’s efforts to issue statements seen as sympathetic to Musharraf and Russian President Vladimir Putin are inconsistent with the mission of the organization. Others are upset primarily over the lack of process. As an example, they note that last month Rosen requested a meeting in Washington with Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the ranking member on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, to update her on his recent conversations in Islamabad with Musharraf. But without the knowledge of the AJCongress Washington staffers who arranged the meeting, Rosen brought with him several high-ranking Pakistanis, including the deputy chief of mission in Washington and a former cabinet minister. "He was supposed to brief her, not lobby her," said one angry AJCongress official who cited this as but one case of Rosen’s style of "doing what he wants and not telling anyone." "He’s undermining what we stand for," said one board member, who pointed out that he does not intend to resign because he has "a fiduciary responsibility" to the organization and because "that’s what Jack would prefer — that the critics leave and he pick their successors." The critics are hopeful that a new internal policy on conflicts of interest and attention in the press will lead to Rosen stepping down from his Congress post. But Rosen seems content with things the way they are. "In the end," he said, "the questions to consider should be how does the organization compare to where it was 10 years ago, and what impact has it had on Jewish life, the United States and Israel. That’s the true test of leadership." The showdown could come by month’s end and no one expects it to be resolved gracefully.

Last Update:

09/29/2009 - 16:06

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