Last week, for that small section of the Jewish world that cares about Jewish organizational politics, came the stunning news that Israel Singer was fired from the World Jewish Congress. What made it astonishing is that the World Jewish Congress is a world congress in name only, and for several decades it was almost exclusively the province of two men: Singer, the public face, and Edgar Bronfman, his long-time major benefactor. It was hard to imagine Singer’s brash independence without the luxury of Bronfman’s checkbook. It was harder to imagine Bronfman’s comfort in a Jewish milieu without Singer, an unconventional Orthodox rabbi from Brooklyn who preferred politics to a pulpit.
Bronfman, bolstered by Singer, got medals from the communists and the capitalists. The East German leader Erich Honecker bestowed the highest state medal on Bronfman in 1988. Eleven years later, President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The White House did not say that Bronfman and his affiliates in the liquor industry were major donors to the Democratic Party. Instead, it said that as president of the WJC, Bronfman "has worked to ensure basic rights for Jews around the world and to fight anti-Semitism and has spearheaded the effort to retrieve the assets of Holocaust victims and their families."
Singer’s accomplishments are listed on the WJC Website (http://www.worldjewishcongress.org/about/bio_singer.html), which notes that he has traveled in excess of a million miles and has visited almost every Jewish community on all continents. This makes it appear that Jewish leadership is calculated in frequent-flyer miles.
In the WJC press release confirming the dismissal of Singer, Bronfman said: "For his work on behalf of Soviet Jewry …, exposing the Nazi past of Kurt Waldheim, securing nearly $’0 billion in Holocaust restitution, and for being a leader for the Jewish dialogue with the Christian and Muslim religions, the Jewish world owes Israel Singer a tremendous debt of gratitude."
Under Singer and Bronfman, the WJC racked up an impressed stack of news clips. Whether history treats them kindly and the nature of the Jewish world’s debt are unclear.
It is true they succeeded ‘0 years ago in exposing the Nazi-era activities of former U.N. Secretary-General Waldheim, when Waldheim was seeking — and won — the Austrian presidency. There are many who lauded the WJC. Others, however, questioned whether it was wise at that moment to antagonize Austria. Before the collapse of communism, Austria, an East-West border state, was saving Jewish lives by serving as a transit area for the Soviet Jews the WJC wanted to free.
It is also true that the WJC and Singer gave the great public prominence to dormant Holocaust-era Jewish accounts in Swiss banks. But they did not secure nearly $’0 billion in Holocaust restitution. The Swiss banks case was resolved by U.S. District Judge Edward Korman in a federal court in Brooklyn, not by a Jewish organization. Nazi-era slave-labor claims against Germany and Austria were mediated by Stuart Eizenstat during the Clinton administration. And the most significant German compensation and restitution measures were enacted after German reunification under the leadership of the late Rabbi Israel Miller, then the president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany — of which the WJC is only one of ‘4 members.
There has been some hand-wringing in the Jewish community in the last week over Singer’s firing, in part because the news revived in The New York Times the stories about a past inquiry by the New York State attorney general over financial irregularities at the WJC, and fears that more financial shenanigans may be exposed. Those embarrassing fears were realized Tuesday when JTA quoted Bronfman as saying, Singer "helped himself to cash from the WJC office, my cash." Singer was not available for comment.
One has to wonder how much Jewish support the WJC truly enjoys when so much of its existence has depended on the deep pockets of a single man, Bronfman, who has been president for a quarter-century.
WJC Secretary-General Stephen Herbits told JTA that "the implication that we can’t move forward without Israel Singer is garbage." Putting aside Herbits’ sentiment about Singer, the question is why? Move forward to what, precisely? This may be the time to ask what functions some international political organizations like the WJC or the World Zionist Organization seriously serve these days on behalf of the Jewish people, a half-century after the creation of the State of Israel? It can be argued that, however significant their pre-state purpose, these global organizations are obliged to reinvent themselves or to close.
Organizations like the WJC, of course, can remain the fiefdom of billionaires, with Edgar Bronfman and Ronald Lauder duking it out over who should lead. When the winner emerges, and surveys his realm, he should realize he will get what he pays for: It will be only as rich as the coffers he offers, and his realm may not exceed its payroll.
Marilyn Henry is the author of "Confronting the Perpetrators: A History of the Claims Conference" (Vallentine Mitchell).