Why I support Ron Lauder for WJC president

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The abrupt resignation of WJC President Edgar Bronfman in the wake of successive scandals now leaves the former illustrious global body of the Jewish people on the brink of a total meltdown.

As the media fest continues exposing more improprieties, intrigues and scandals among the leaders, the prevailing consensus in the Jewish world is that if the WJC fails to get its act together, it should be closed down permanently.

Yet today, aside from American Jewry, which is powerful enough to stand alone, there is a genuine need for an international body to cater to and represent the interests of world Jewry. If the World Jewish Congress collapses, escalating anti-Semitism, existential threats against Israel, and the need for coordinated global strategies to confront these dangers will necessitate the creation of a new global Jewish body.

Within a month the situation will be clarified. If the WJC has the capacity to genuinely turn its back on its sordid recent past, there is still hope that it may be resurrected. But to achieve this, the WJC must initiate a healing process and reach out to those alienated by the corruption and lack of governance. That will necessitate electing an entirely new leadership untainted by the scandals of the past.

RONALD LAUDER, who served as US ambassador to Austria and is a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has now formally announced his intention to stand for election as WJC president. Initially he hesitated, concerned that the election would be similar to the bogus Brussels Assembly, which took place in January 2005. At that gathering many of the voting “delegates” had no previous association with the WJC and were simply offered junkets to Brussels in return for their vote.

Lauder is not just another Jewish billionaire. He has a highly impressive track record of concrete accomplishments on behalf of the Jewish people. Virtually singlehand, he created an immense network of Jewish educational institutions and schools throughout Eastern Europe, Austria and Germany, which has regenerated Jewish life in these regions. His contributions to Israel are legendary and include the founding of the the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya.

More recently he was elected head of the Jewish National Fund in the US – an organization at the time in disrepute because of widely publicized financial mismanagement. Lauder appointed a new management team and introduced radical reforms. Today JNF in America represents a role model of governance and financial transparency and was even awarded the Better Business Bureau’s Charitable Seal of Approval.

BUT REGRETTABLY some of the current failed leaders are determined to retain power. They have resolved not to convene a genuine assembly election in which global Jewish community representatives would predominate. Instead they are holding a Governing Board meeting which comprises only 90 people, heavily stacked against any newcomers because the bulk of the delegates were appointed on the basis of loyalty to the establishment at the previous bogus assembly. Their objective is to install Mendel Kaplan as interim president for two years and avoid genuine elections. Kaplan is a former chairman of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency, and has a distinguished record in fundraising.

His current role as chairman of the WJC Executive has no constitutional standing. It was created ad hoc to placate him when he failed to retain the position of chairman of the Governing Board. Kaplan was regarded as one of the closest supporters of the now deposed and disgraced Israel Singer. In fact, he repeatedly denied there were serious breaches of behavior. He vigorously opposed an internal audit which would have resolved the problem and avoided the ensuing public scandal.

The last Brussels Plenary Assembly circulated statements about Kaplan purportedly exonerating the improprieties committed by Singer. However, the New York’s Attorney-General’s Office subsequently proved that the alibis provided for Singer were patently false.

At the Brussels assembly, Kaplan blocked any meaningful discussion of the allegations of corrupt practices. Under his chairmanship security guards denied entry to Maya Ben Chaim, the former director of the WJC Geneva office, and Dan Lack, the WJC lawyer who first drew attention to $1.2 million secreted from New York to Switzerland. Both former WJC officials had traveled especially to Brussels in order to convey the facts at their disposal to the assembly.

WHEN THE findings of the NYS attorney-general were released, the minutes of the WJC steering committee quoted Kaplan, stating he was delighted that there was no evidence of any wrongdoing. If that was his understanding of the damning report, one surely cannot visualize such a person leading the WJC into a new era of genuine transparency and governance.

Hence, should Kaplan be elected interim president, the scandals and divisions of the past three years will undoubtedly continue to plague the organization. The problems will be magnified because the outgoing Bronfman, and Secretary-General Stephen E. Herbits, have now proclaimed that the full extent of the corruption involving the WJC was concealed from the attorney-general, and consequently a reopening of the investigation may soon take place.

IF ELECTED, Kaplan and his allies may well be obliged to contribute $5-10 million per annum out of their own pockets if they intend to maintain even a minimal WJC global infrastructure. It is unlikely that generous American Jewish donors, who prior to the onset of the recent upheavals provided contributions amounting to between $10-15 million a year, will resume donating to an organization in which those associated with the former scandal-ridden leadership continue to retain the reins of power.

As a former leader of this once proud and influential global body, I watch the ongoing intrigues and new exposures of scandal with profound sadness, and hope that that a new, untainted leadership may yet be elected next month. Only then will the WJC have a chance of resurrecting itself and resuming its mission on behalf of the Jewish people.

The writer is a veteran international Jewish leader. He was a former chairman of the Governing Board of the World Jewish Congress and parted with the organization over issues of governance and financial transparency.

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