Despite the sudden dismissal of Israel Singer from the World Jewish Congress, which he helped steer for 35 years, the leaders of a major Holocaust restitution group he presides over this week said they are standing by him.
Responding to charges made by WJC President Edgar Bronfman that Singer, his longtime chief lieutenant and confidante, “helped himself to cash from the WJC office — my cash,” Julius Berman, chairman of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, asserted that as president, Singer has never been involved in the financial decisions of the Claims Conference, and said he sees no reason to take action at this time. The Claims Conference is charged with distributing hundreds of millions of dollars to Holocaust survivors; Singer’s primary role has been as a negotiator and advocate.
As far as Berman is concerned, “the problems that have arisen at the WJC relate to internal WJC politics and we have diligently kept them off the table.
“In my opinion,” he continued, “he can continue to function because of who he is and what he represents.”
The Claims Conference, made up of 24 international organizations (including the WJC), will hold its annual meeting in July, when new elections will take place. Though as of this week Singer no longer represents the WJC on the conference, he could be re-elected as an independent, officials say.
Roman Kent, a Holocaust survivor and senior representative of the Claims Conference, asserted there is “no better person than Israel Singer to defend the survivors and claim moral justice for them because what he did was not only a question of rightful money; he was fighting for justice, for history.”
Like him or not, Singer has always been a fighter, sometimes with other Jewish leaders and more often with bankers or businessmen whose companies had profited from Nazi takeovers. Singer viewed such efforts as a moral crusade. Privately, several Jewish leaders have said it is unseemly for Singer, who was found by a New York State Attorney General’s report last year to have violated fiduciary responsibilities at the WJC, to be representing the Jewish community in negotiations with world leaders and heading the Claims Conference. One critic who has spoken publicly is Menachem Rosensaft, an attorney and former chairman of the executive committee of the American branch of the WJC, who told The Jewish Week last month: “The same criteria that compelled Alan Hevesi’s resignation [as comptroller of New York] should be applied to the leaders of humanitarian and not-for-profit organizations generally.”
He added that “Jewish leaders who seek to exercise moral authority should be free of even the appearance of impropriety.”
Singer’s behavior was in the spotlight again this week after being suddenly dismissed March 14 by Bronfman during an international conference call of the WJC’s steering committee. Those on the phone call, including Singer, were said to be surprised by the sudden announcement that Singer “is no longer associated with the World Jewish Congress or any of its affiliates.”
Though Bronfman, whose presidency has coincided with Singer’s tenure, did not say at the time what made him decide to turn against his closest lieutenant, he wrote in a letter that same day to European Jewish Congress President Pierre Besnainou (and obtained by The Jewish Week), that Singer was taking money from the WJC “for a very long time ... in violation of WJC policy.
“We thought we had all that cleared up,” Bronfman wrote, “and then we discovered that he was playing the same game in Israel, taking cash from the office and never accounting for it.
“The final blow,” he wrote, “came when we discovered that he was playing games with his hotel bills in Jerusalem.”
Bronfman wrote that “this was much harder on me than on anyone else. It took me many weeks of crying to find out I was so badly used by a man I used to love.”
Attempts to reach Singer were unsuccessful.
Singer’s financial dealings have been the focus of intense scrutiny since 2004, when it was learned that he had transferred $1.2 million from the WJC to a Swiss bank account. This, in turn, led to an investigation by then-New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, resulting in the WJC being criticized for fiscal improprieties and lack of accountability. The report called for Singer to pay back more than $300,000 in “inappropriate disbursements” he received over the years and to give up any role of financial responsibility with the group.
He was given a new role by the WJC as chair of a world policy council, and supported by his colleagues.
But in recent months it became evident that Singer and Stephen Herbits, the secretary-general appointed by Bronfman to resolve the governance and financial issues, were deeply at odds.
Both had close ties to Bronfman, with Herbits having been a key business associate at Seagrams, the liquor company associated with the Bronfman family, and Singer seen as “Bronfman’s Jew,” according to some observers – the charismatic activist who was instrumental in a number of stunningly successful WJC projects in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Most notably Singer led the negotiations with European banks and governments to secure nearly $20 billion in restitution for Holocaust survivors. With Bronfman footing the bills and providing entrée to world leaders, Singer helped expose the fact that Kurt Waldheim, the United Nations Secretary-General and president of Austria, had hidden his early ties to the Nazis. Singer was also an early leader of the Soviet Jewry movement.
Known as a brilliant strategist with an air of superiority, he had little use for conventional bureaucracy, and Bronfman’s wealth and power gave him access. Singer flew around the world, meeting with popes and government leaders, and establishing a reputation as an exceedingly tough negotiator with European bankers.
“Why did it work?” asked Elan Steinberg, Singer’s former executive director, as quoted in “The Victim’s Fortune,” a book by John Authers and Richard Wolffe about the battle over the Holocaust restitution efforts. “Because we beat their brains out. It’s like Pharaoh. This is punishment.”
But in the internal battles of the WJC in recent years, Singer seems to have lost out to Herbits for Bronfman’s ear, and support. Singer is now seen as a liability because his financial improprieties at the charity have caused it embarrassment and loss of donor dollars in recent times. In addition, the Internal Revenue Service is conducting an investigation of the WJC.
Even Singer’s critics this week called the latest developments a tragedy, noting that his many triumphs may be eclipsed in time by the circumstances leading to his downfall within the WJC.
Isi Leibler, the primary whistleblower in calling for independent investigations into the financial workings of the charity, said this week that the “positive outcome” proved that “people power has triumphed.”
Leibler, who was ousted as vice president of the group several years ago, said he regretted that it took “three years of ongoing scandal” before Singer was removed.“To avoid a total meltdown,” he said, “and ensure that democracy prevails, elections must be held as soon as possible to elect new leaders not tainted by the recent scandals.”
The Israeli and European branches of the WJC have threatened to leave, complaining that Bronfman is dictating policy.
Bronfman, who in recent years has said he wants to step down as WJC president, wrote in his letter to Besnainou that he is “determined to leave only when this whole mess is cleaned up.”
Bronfman had hoped to have his son, Matthew, succeed him as president when the next elections are held, sometime in the next two years. But philanthropist Ronald Lauder has stated his intention to run for the position, saying the younger Bronfman lacks experience. Others have noted that an organization stressing democracy and new levels of openness would not likely have a son follow his father as president.
Stewart Ain is a staff writer and Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of The Jewish Week.
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