Elan Steinberg, the former World Jewish Congress executive vice president, died last Friday in New York at 59.
Steinberg was one of the greatest political strategists of the post-war generation of Jewish leadership and an articulate spokesman for Diaspora Jewry. He played a crucial role in introducing a dynamic and assertive Jewish global presence. His most impressive contribution was in relation to exposing the chicanery of the Swiss banks which led to successful campaigns obliging European governments, insurance companies and other organizations to belatedly compensate victims of the Holocaust and their descendants.
He also made history by initiating a campaign challenging the former United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim over his Nazi associations. This initially generated considerable controversy but was ultimately vindicated when Waldheim was placed on a watch-list, denying him right of entry into the United States.
Born in Israel to Holocaust survivors, Steinberg grew up in New York where he received an M.A. in political science from the University of New York.
He joined the World Jewish Congress in 1978, initially as its U.N. representative but was rapidly promoted to executive director and soon became their key public spokesman. As Elie Wiesel stated at his funeral, “Whenever Jews were in danger, or Jewish honor offended, he vigorously, yet elegantly, spoke up. Whenever Jewish memory was attacked, he attacked the attacker.”
But behind the scenes, Steinberg also became the dominant strategist of the World Jewish Congress which led it to become the pre-eminent Jewish international organization supporting the rights of Jews, combating anti-Semitism and promoting the case for Israel. As a consummate professional, Steinberg continuously understated his role in this area.
It was during the Clinton administration when he arguably had his greatest triumph, orchestrating the campaign which resulted in over $1 billion being recovered from the Swiss banks and insurance companies in restitution for Holocaust victims.
I was privileged to work closely with Steinberg and witness his extraordinary achievements. In protest against the corruption and financial irregularities that were taking place inside the organization, he left the World Jewish Congress with me in 2004. Ultimately, his position was fully vindicated and he was re-engaged as senior adviser to current WJC president Ronald Lauder, a post he retained until his death.
Lauder eulogized Steinberg as “one of the great Jewish activists of the past decades … whose premature death will leave the huge void in the Jewish world … He was probably the most gifted communication professional in the Jewish organizational world.”
He was also vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants. He acted pro bono on their behalf, leading their efforts to condemn anti-Semitism and in particular, devotedly promoting the cause of ailing Holocaust survivors.
As one of Steinberg’s close personal friends, I can only say that I will sorely miss him as a remarkably decent human being as well as a compassionate and devoted counsel on Jewish issues. His premature death represents an irreplaceable loss to world Jewry.
He is survived by his wife Sharon and three children.