Satisfaction in clearing my name is balanced by deep sadness’
The Back Page
by Netty C. Gross
April 16, 2007
In the end, like Cardinals Richelieu and Wolsey and other famously denounced deputies, Dr. Israel Singer’s fall from grace was as swift as his ascendance to power was spectacular. The Brooklyn-bred Orthodox rabbi and professor of political science who boldly negotiated multimillion dollar restitution deals with European heads of state as secretary general of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), was abruptly dismissed from his position in mid-March.
Doing the firing was billionaire WJC president Edgar Bronfman, Singer’s close friend and benefactor for the past three decades. In a widely circulated March 14 letter to European WJC affiliates and leaked to the media, Bronfman wrote that Singer “helped himself to cash from the WJC office, my cash,” and that he spent “many weeks of crying” after finding out that “I was so badly used by a man I used to love.” Singer has denied any wrongdoing.
Back in Jerusalem, Isi Leibler, 72, a millionaire businessman who played a starring role in exposing the financial improprieties at the WJC, quietly watched the unfolding saga. A veteran Jewish leader (president of the Executive Council of Australia for eleven years; WJC Board of Governors chairman in 1989; WJC senior vice president in 2001), Leibler was ousted from the WJC in September 2004 by Bronfman, after publicly questioning management practices at the organization and demanding explanations for $1.2 million in WJC funds, which turned up in a Swiss bank account controlled by Singer. The money was returned but the transfer was never fully explained and though an investigation by the New York State Attorney General’s office found no criminality, Singer was accused of violating his fiduciary duties and was forced to resign as chair of the WJC governing board.
Still, Bronfman and newly appointed WJC Secretary General Stephen Herbits stood by Singer (finding him a new WJC title) and accused Leibler of besmirching the organization, even going so far as to file a $6 million libel suit in Tel Aviv District Court. But the tables rapidly turned. Unpopular with WJC affiliates, the lawsuit was withdrawn last November and the court ordered the WJC to pay Leibler $55,000 in legal fees. Singer was ousted two months later.
Meanwhile a 2005 audit by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, looking at the organization’s finances for the past decade, reportedly failed to account for $3.8 million and the Internal Revenue Service is now investigating.
A friendly man, who detractors say can also be abrasive, Leibler sipped tea in his elegant Jerusalem study and told The Report, “It’s been a very emotional week for me.”
The Jerusalem Report: You have been careful not to appear to be gloating but do you feel vindicated?
Isi Leibler: I am pleased that on the one hand those who were demonized and dismissed for demanding an independent audit of the WJC back in August 2004 have been proved right. Our objective was reform. But satisfaction in having my position vindicated is balanced by a deep sadness that a venerable organization to which I gave so many years of my life, and which plays an important role for world Jewry, is close to a meltdown. It could have been avoided. My constructive criticism should have been handled internally without providing scandalous media coverage and fodder for anti-Semites. Some European media coverage [of Singer's dismissal] has anti-Semitic overtones.
So, on balance, were your efforts worthwhile?
Yes, because an organization as important as the WJC must operate with governance and financial transparency. But instead its leaders became obsessed with covering up misdeeds. They bear the brunt of the responsibility and should all step down and take retirement.
Are you referring to Bronfman and Herbits?
Absolutely, among others. It’s time for new elections and new faces to implement the reform to which the WJC has pledged. I also think Singer should retire immediately as president of the Claims Conference [a major Holocaust restitution organization based in New York where Singer has a non-salaried position]. It’s a shocking disgrace that [Conference board chair] Julius Berman has dismissed Singer’s ouster from the WJC as irrelevant to the Conference. It reflects a lack of moral compass.
What lessons can Jewish organizations learn from this?
That the breakdown in governance starts when a senior professional or major lay leader fails to be accountable to an organization’s executive committee and starts running the place like a private fiefdom.
Can only financially independent and connected individuals, such as yourself, act as whistle blowers?
I don’t think so. A person who works in a nonprofit must understand that public funds are sacrosanct. When fiduciary responsibilities are being breached, there is an obligation to speak up no matter who you are.
Aren’t the scandals buffeting the WJC likely to dry up donations?
It would be a tragedy if donors stopped contributing to Jewish charities. But donors must also be diligent before contributing, and satisfy themselves that reform is taking place and that their gift is being used exactly for the purpose intended.
How will the Singer-Bronfman partnership be remembered?
They were a unique combination. Singer was aggressive and charismatic, while Bronfman provided the financial and political muscle. They achieved a great deal in the fight for Holocaust restitution and the battle against anti-Semitism. The seeds of disaster, however, were sown when these two individuals were allowed to act unfettered, without accountability to their constituency.