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WJC President Ronald S. Lauder and Eduardo Elsztain, chairman of the WJC Governing Board, in January 2009

The World Jewish Congress (WJC) was founded in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1936 as an international federation of Jewish communities and organizations. According to its mission statement, the World Jewish Congress' main purpose is to act as "the diplomatic arm of the Jewish people." Membership in the WJC is open to all representative Jewish groups or communities, irrespective of the social, political or economic ideology of the community's host country. The World Jewish Congress is supported by those communities and individual members who as concerned Jewish citizens want their voices to be heard on matters of concern to the Jewish people. The World Jewish Congress has special credentials and recognition at the United Nations and within many of its institutions, commissions and sub-bodies. Its headquarters are in New York City, USA, and the organization maintains international offices in Brussels, Belgium; Jerusalem, Israel; Paris, France; Moscow, Russia; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Geneva, Switzerland.

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Organization and related bodies

The WJC is made up of five regional branches: WJC North America, the Latin American Jewish Congress, the European Jewish Congress, the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, and the WJC Israel. Besides that, Jewish communities in 92 countries are directly affiliated to the World Jewish Congress. Its highest decision-making body is the Plenary Assembly, which meets every four years and elects the Executive of the WJC. The last meeting of the Plenary Assembly, attended by over 400 delegates from 62 countries, was held in Jerusalem in January 2009. It also adopted new statutes, which replace the 1975 Constitution.

The WJC also maintains a research institute based in Jerusalem, Israel. The Institute is involved in research and analysis of a variety of issues of importance to contemporary Jewry, and its findings are published in the form of monthly Policy Dispatches. Under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress in Israel, the Israel Council on Foreign Relations has since its inception in 1989 hosted heads of state, prime ministers, foreign ministers and other distinguished visitors to Israel and has issued several publications on Israeli foreign policy and international affairs.

In 1951, Nahum Goldmann, then president of the WJC, cofounded the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany - the Claims Conference, as a body to engage the German government in negotiations for material compensation for Jewish victims of Nazi persecution. The World Jewish Congress designates two members to the Board of Directors of the Conference.

In 1992 the WJC established the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) as an organization for the restitution of Jewish property in the rest of Europe (outside Germany). It has been active in the claims against Swiss banks.

In 2000 the World Jewish Congress shaped the policy debate about looted art by criticizing museums "for waiting for artworks to be claimed by Holocaust victims instead of publicly announcing that they have suspect items."[1]

The WJC is involved in inter-faith dialogue with Christian and Muslim groups. [1]. One of its major new programs is concerned with the plight of Jewish refugees from Arab lands.


Presidents of World Jewish Congress :


WJC Executive Committee:

At the 13th Plenary Assembly in Jerusalem in January 2009, Ronald S. Lauder was confirmed as WJC president. Eduardo Elsztain of Argentina was elected chairman of the WJC Governing Board, succeeding the American Matthew Bronfman. Jacob Benatoff of Italy was elected WJC treasurer, replacing Elsztain. The 400 delegates of the Plenary Assembly also elected the following as vice-presidents of the World Jewish Congress: Yaakov Bleich (Ukraine), Helena Glaser (Israel), Robert Goot (Australia), Flo Kaufmann (Great Britain), Charlotte Knobloch (Germany), Tomas Kraus (Czech Republic), Tamar Shchory (Israel), Marc Schneier (USA), and Mervyn Smith (South Africa). Other WJC vice-presidents appointed by the regional affiliates are: Roger Cukierman, France (for the European Jewish Congress), Moshe Ronen, Canada (for the North American Jewish Congress), Eduard Shifrin, Russia (for the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress), and Sara Winkowski, Uruguay (for the Latin American Jewish Congress). Since August 2007, Michael Schneider is secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress. Ex-officio members of the WJC Executive are the heads of the five regional affiliates, currently Alexander Machkevitch of Kazakhstan (Euro-Asian Jewish Congress), Moshe Kantor of Russia (European Jewish Congress), Evelyn Sommer of the United States (WJC North America), Jack Terpins of Brazil (Latin American Jewish Congress), and Shai Hermesh of Israel (WJC Israel).

A smaller Steering Committee is running the day-to-day activities of the World Jewish Congress. It is composed of the president, the chairman of the WJC Governing Board, the treasurer and the chairmen of the five WJC regional affiliates. Other members may be appointed by the Executive Committee.

Israel's President Shimon Peres addressing the 400 delegates of the 13th WJC Plenary Assembly in Jerusalem in January 2009

World Jewish Congress Foundation:

For its fundraising in the United States, the World Jewish Congress set up a foundation, the World Jewish Congress Foundation, in 2005. The WJCF is fully accredited by the United States Internal Revenue Service as a charitable tax-exempt organization with an American board. It engages primarily in fundraising efforts to secure operating funds and grant money for the World Jewish Congress, which it disperses at its discretion. The organization solicits donations through direct mail campaigns, major donor fundraising initiatives, estate contributions campaigns, and other activities.

Funds raised by the Foundation are distributed to the World Jewish Congress via a formal grant process. Under this process, the World Jewish Congress and its related entities submit grant requests directly to the Foundation, which reviews them and then determines who will receive grants, for what purposes, for what amount, and under what conditions. The Foundation also receives and reviews reports on grant award usage and will take the necessary steps to ensure full compliance with the Internal Revenue Service and State regulations, as well as with Federal anti-terrorism regulations.

The WJC Foundation is governed by a board of directors. The number of board members that occupy positions with other World Jewish Congress entities is limited to no more than 20 percent. Ronald S. Lauder was elected honorary chairman of the Board of the Foundation. Herbert Juli is the executive director of the Foundation, which has its offices in Miami, Florida.

Policies and activities of the World Jewish Congress

One of the principal activities of the World Jewish Congress has been to fight anti-Semitism in all its forms. Its stated policy on this issue is: “Governments and international organisations need to provide adequate resources for the fight against hatred, notably by providing security to Jewish communities and by improving education. Laws against anti-Semitism and other forms of racism need to be adopted and enforced properly in every country. All forms and expressions of neo-Nazism, xenophobia and intolerance are unacceptable and have to be condemned, and the full force of the law needs to be applied to those who are a danger to democracy liberty and Jewish communities. Marches by extremist, anti-Semitic groups should be banned where national laws provide for such a possibility. Governments and political leaders should condemn such events and work together with local Jewish communities.”

On the Middle East peace process, the WJC favors a two-state solution , stating on its website that “a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians based on a two-state solution is the only legitimate and just way to provide for a lasting peace. The nascent Palestinian state should respect the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. A Palestinian state can only be founded if it respects Israel’s right to exist in security. Initiatives that help to enable the Palestinians to advance economically and socially should also be supported as a means of stabilising the peace process.”

The WJC also lobbies international organizations, notably the UN, to ensure that governments “apply the same standards to Israel when judging its actions compared with those of other countries.” The WJC states on its website that “Israel should not be singled out for criticism by countries which do not themselves adhere to the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law” and that “Israel needs to be treated fairly in international organisations, especially in United Nations bodies such as the Human Rights Council.”

The WJC has been very active in inter-religious dialogue and good relations with the Catholic Church. The organization played a leading role in the dialogue with the Vatican over many decades. Progress, however, is slow with regard to the Orthodox and Protestant Churches. In February 2009, WJC President Lauder was critical of the Vatican’s decision to revoke the excommunication of Catholic Bishop Richard Williamson, who had denied the existence of gas chambers in Nazi concentration camps.

The World Jewish Congress also considers dialogue with representatives of moderate Islam as “one of the most important and challenging issues at this time. The increasing gap of understanding between so-called Western liberal democracies and the Islamic word is extremely dangerous,” according to the WJC website. In 2008, WJC leaders met with Saudi King Abdullah at an inter-faith conference in the Spanish capital Madrid. Later that year, WJC President Ronald S. Lauder met with the Saudi monarch in New York. The WJC believes that the three Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) can cooperate “to respond to the challenges posed by developments in modern society, especially to discuss and promote shared values.”

In August 2008, World Jewish Congress and Venezuelan Jewish community leaders met in Caracas with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frias. The meeting stirred some controversy in the Jewish world because of Chávez’ public support for Iranian President Ahmadinejad and his strong criticism of Israel. However, WJC Secretary-General Michael Schneider defended the meeting with Chávez and said the WJC acted only on behalf of, and with the backing of, the Venezuelan Jewish community.

On the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab lands after the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, the World Jewish Congress states that “The plight of Jews who fled from, or still live in, Arab lands and their specific concerns are not well-known and need to be raised with governments and international organisations. Where illegal seizure of assets took place, these should be returned to their former owners, or adequate compensation should be paid. Jews remaining in Arab lands, as well as other religious minorities, should be granted religious freedom and allowed to practice their faith according to their traditions. Jewish communal sites in Arab countries must be preserved and respected.”

Moshe Ronen, vice-president of the World Jewish Congress and national chairman of the Canada-Israel Committee stated in May 2009, after the Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon declared Israel's expansion of settlements into Palestinian territory an "illegal move", that it his job to influence the government (of Canada), disputing that the issue of the (Israeli) settlements has damaged the Peace process in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.[3]

Finances and allegations of irregularities

The organization, founded in 1936 in Switzerland, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the World Jewish Restitution Organization, and the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, founded in 1998, have secured millions of dollars for the victims and survivors of the Holocaust in payments from Germany, Swiss banks, Insurances and other parties totaling $20 billion.[4][5] See also: World Jewish Congress lawsuit against Swiss banks.

According to the Independent, a series of allegations about the organization's accounting practices and "unusual" money transfers, raised by Isi Liebler, the WJC's senior vice-president, led to a full scale investigation of the finances of the World Jewish Congress.[4]

Although most of WJC's income comes from thousands of small donations, the organization is struggling. The New York Times states that "Donations fell in 2005, and, according to its financial statements, its expenses were $17 million and its revenues were $9.4 million."[6] A professional fund raising company, using direct mail fund-raising, yielded a projected $8.15 million [USD] while charging an annual fee of $3.5 million.[7] A comprehensive audit of the WJC's accounts in Switzerland from 1995–2004, conducted by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, an accounting firm, found that "over the years $3.8 million 'disappeared' from the bank accounts"[7] and that there were "significant un-reconciled cash withdrawals where there is no documentation of the usage of the funds."[8]

Rabbi Israel Singer was dismissed after a tumultuous period for the organization when its Swiss affiliate discovered that 1.2 million USD were involved in suspicious money transfers between accounts in New York, Switzerland and London[6] to a WJC numbered bank account at a UBS branch in Geneva. The Geneva office was not aware of the account and until "the manager, Maya Ben-Haim Rosen, received a bank statement showing that a UBS account she was unaware of had been overdrawn by $40 when Mr. Singer transferred the money" to Zvi Barak, an Israeli lawyer.[9] The WJC's General Counsel in Geneva, Daniel Lack, called for an independent audit of the WJC's accounts, but his requests were ignored. Although the money was recovered it was not until much later that deeper investigations about the organizations finances were conducted, which found various irregularities as well as lavish travel and other expenses incurred by Mr. Singer.[6][2]

Haaretz reported that the name of the organization "was associated with financial irregularities, corruption and endless power struggles."[7] New York State attorney general Eliot Spitzer conducted a comprehensive audit of the WJC over a two-year period and on January 31, 2006 entered into an Agreement of Discontinuance with the WJC, resolving the investigation and summarizing its key findings. According to the agreement, the investigation "presented the organization as one in which corruption had spread in recent years"[7], identified financial mismanagement and breaches of fiduciary duty, but found no criminal wrongdoing and concluded that any misconduct “did not compromise the core mission” of the organization or result in “identifiable losses of charitable assets.”[10] An article in the Haaretz points out that the Spitzer report neglected the audit of the WJC's accounts in Switzerland from 1995–2004 and did not include the most serious charges and accusations.[7]

Despite vigorously defending Rabbi Singer during the Attorney General's inquiry, in March 2007 Bronfman abruptly announced the firing of Rabbi Singer. Bronfman accused Singer of stealing his money in an article published by Haaretz: "'Singer helped himself to cash from the WJC office, my cash,' wrote Bronfman to European Jewish Congress President Pierre Besnainou in a letter. 'The final blow came when we discovered that he was playing games with his hotel bills in Jerusalem.' ... [Singer] boasted of his ability to put one over on presidents and prime ministers, and with the same degree of pride enumerated heads of state as his personal friends. In retrospect, it has emerged that during the same period, Singer himself behaved as though he himself were a head of state, living ostentatiously at the expense of the donors to the WJC."[11] The Jewish Daily Forward provided more details between the "back-and-forth accusations" and denials "about which side leaked the material to the media". According to the article, WJC Secretary General Stephen Herbits accused Singer himself of leaking this memo to the media. [12] Subsequent press reports indicated that the memo was leaked from another organization unaffiliated with Rabbi Singer, suggesting that Mr. Herbits' allegations were incorrect.[13]

However, internal WJC documents point to a different explanation for Rabbi Singer's firing. E-mails from Mr. Herbits' deputy, Pinchas Shapiro, to Rabbi Singer only days before his firing, suggested that friction had developed between Rabbi Singer and Edgar Bronfman over Rabbi Singer's position on various internal WJC political matters, including the perception that he was insufficiently advocating the candidacy of Edgar Bronfman's son Matthew to the presidency of the WJC. [14] Indeed, Matthew Bronfman had for months been favored by his father and Mr. Herbits to become the next WJC president. A memo from Mr. Herbits to Matthew in late 2006 outlined a number of strategies for succeeding to his father's position. Among other things, the memo stressed the importance of ensuring the support of Rabbi Singer. [14]

The New York Times wrote in May 2007, that "Edgar M. Bronfman Sr., the billionaire liquor magnate who is its largest patron, had resigned as its president" because of the turmoil. [15] The Jewish Daily Forward points out, that the resignation ended "one of the most prolific and controversial tenures in American Jewish communal Leadership... The move follows three years of internecine fighting at the WJC, which included an investigation by the New York attorney general and more recent divisions between Bronfman and the organization’s affiliates across the world.".[16]

Another investigation against the World Jewish Congress is still ongoing, this time by the federal Internal Revenue Service.[11][2]

Controversy and internal conflicts

The presidency of the World Jewish Congress is one of the most important and prestigious positions in the world of Jewish organizations. The "presidency of the Congress provided Bronfman with prestige and in return it received strong financial backing and generous funding from him. Nevertheless, documents that have reached Haaretz indicate that in practice, for the great honor that came his way, Bronfman paid far smaller sums than what many had thought until now."[7]

Bronfman's status within the organization allowed him to promote Rabbi Israel Singer's position in other organizations, such as president of the Jewish Claims Conference and chairman of the board of the World Jewish Restitution Organization. Other senior officials who left the World Jewish Congress received retirement grants of $1 million each.[7] The accountant of the Geneva office of the World Jewish Congress had been paying himself around $1,900 more than his approved salary.[9] Not only senior officials but also associates of the World Jewish Congress received large compensations. Curtis Hoxter, the owner of a public relations firm that provided services to the WJC, was paid around $200,000 a year during 2001–2003. The Spitzer report points out that "the WJC did not report these payments to the U.S. tax authorities. Hoxter told Haaretz that he did no work for the Congress in those years, and claimed he did not receive any payment. The documents indicate otherwise."[7]

Rabbi Israel Singer, in the position as the president of the Claims Conference, "an umbrella organization that has paid millions of dollars to the March of the Living, a Holocaust education group that brings students to Poland and Israel ... began payments to Hoxter totaling $709,000 in 2003. That was the same year Singer 'was instructed to stop funneling unauthorized payments to him via the World Jewish Congress ‹ payments that had by then totaled $657,600,'"[17] Singer denied the accusations and Hoxter states that he can not state the specifics of his position. In an Article of the Jewish Week Israel Singer is cited with the following statement: "I'm not involved in allocating Claims Conference funds and certainly have no say or interest in any consultants that grant recipients might choose to hire. ..."[17] "I have no idea. I have no recollection. It was just something I assisted on. I prefer not to go into any details. It was not a major activity. I’d have to check my records.”[18]

Several internal disputes of the World Jewish Congress followed within the last decade. The firing of Rabbi Israel Singer has been associated with the internal power struggles on Bronfman's behalf - according the a March 25, 2007 article published by Haaretz "Singer told Bronfman that he wasn't prepared to fight Jews".[7] A leaked document indicates, that Steven Herbits, the WJC’s secretary general, worked behind the scenes to "pave the way for Matthew Bronfman’s ascension. Now members of the steering committee say that the younger Bronfman is not being considered as a potential candidate."[16] Another reason for Singers dismissal was that "he did not devote himself sufficiently to the election of Bronfman's son Matthew as the next president of the WJC."[7] The dismissal of Singer became the issue of heated discussions within the Jewish community; several letters to the editors of the Jewish Press discuss the dismissal and the "old boy network": "The Israel Singer debacle made me think about the process by which people become leaders in the Jewish community. Edgar Bronfman’s big bucks enable him to take over the World Jewish Congress, and Israel Singer becomes a leader in that organization because his then-friend Edgar Bronfman makes him one."[19]

The lawsuits, corruption and internal power struggles affected the work, influence and unity of the entire organization. After the firing of Singer, marking "an all-time low in the history of the organization"[20], the World Jewish Congress even stopped funding its Israeli Branch, which resumed after the resignation of Bronfmann "with a resumption of funding for the Jerusalem office and 'restoration of normal relationships' among its affiliates."[20]

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Waldheim Affair

In 1986 was proposed by the World Jewish Congress that Austrian President Kurt Waldheim had lied about his service as an officer in the mounted corps of the SA, and his time as an ordnance officer in Saloniki, Greece, from 1942 to 1943. Waldheim called the allegations "pure lies and malicious acts". Nevertheless he admitted that he had known about German reprisals against partisans: "Yes, I knew. I was horrified. But what could I do? I had either to continue to serve or be executed." He said that he had never fired a shot or even seen a partisan. His former immediate superior at the time stated that Waldheim had "remained confined to a desk". Former Austrian Jewish chancellor Bruno Kreisky called the World Jewish Congress's actions an "extraordinary infamy" adding that in election, Austrians "won't allow the Jews abroad to order us about and tell us who should be our President.".

Racist Remarks by WJC Officials

Stephen E. Herbits, the Secretary-General of the New York-based World Jewish Congress made several racist remarks and ethnic slurs in an internal memo against the president of the European Jewish Congress Pierre Besnainou: "He is French. Don’t discount this. He cannot be trusted, ... He is Tunisian. Do not discount this either. He works like an Arab." [21] The World Jewish Congress in Israel has condemned the statements as both hateful and racist. "It appears that the struggle in the World Jewish Congress has now turned racist, said MK Shai Hermesh (Kadima), who heads the Israeli board of the WJC. Instead of creating unity among the Jewish people, this organization is just creating division and hatred."[22]

Notes

  1. ^ CNN. Manhattan museum plans to issue Holocaust looted-art study. March 2, 2000, Available: http://archives.cnn.com/2000/STYLE/arts/03/02/holocaust.art.reut/
  2. ^ a b c Stephanie Strom. Cosmetics Heir to Lead World Jewish Congress. New York Times. June 11, 2007, Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/11/us/11jewish.html
  3. ^ Blanchfield, Mike and Megan O'Toole. Israel growth illegal: Tories. Expansion of settlements deters peace, Minister says. National Post. May 26, 2009, Available: http://www.nationalpost.com/news/story.html?id=1629619
  4. ^ a b Andrew Buncombe. Holocaust fund investigated for 'unusual' money transfers. The Independent. January 1, 2005, http://news.independent.co.uk/world/americas/story.jsp?story=597158 (URL expired)
  5. ^ Amiram Barkat. World Jewish Congress fires chairman Israel Singer in surprise move. Haaretz. March 15, 2007, Available: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/838311.html
  6. ^ a b c Stephanie Strom. World Jewish Congress Dismisses Leader. New York Times. March 16, 2007, Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/16/us/16jewish.html
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Amiram Barkat. Where was Edgar Bronfman? Haaretz. February 23, 2007, Available: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/828961.html
  8. ^ Nathaniel Popper. WJC Audit: $3 Million Unaccounted For. The Forward. November 03, 2006, Available: http://www.forward.com/articles/wjc-audit-4-million-unaccounted-for/
  9. ^ a b Stephanie Strom. Spitzer Looking Into World Jewish Congress. New York Times. December 31, 2004, Section A, Page 22, Column 4, 796 words
  10. ^ Ami Eden and Nathaniel Popper. N.Y. Probe of Charity Cites Mismanagement. The Forward. February 03, 2006, Available: http://www.forward.com/articles/ny-probe-of-charity-cites-mismanagement/
  11. ^ a b Amiram Barkat. Members of the Tribe. The end of a beautiful friendship. Haaretz. March 25, 2007. Available: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/841279.html
  12. ^ Nathaniel Popper. Source of WJC Leak a Mystery. The Forward. March 30, 2007, Available: http://www.forward.com/articles/source-of-wjc-leak-a-mystery/
  13. ^ Nathaniel Popper. Lauder’s Foundation Paid Conference Leader $50,000. The Forward. June 6, 2007, Available: http://www.forward.com/articles/lauder-s-foundation-paid-conference-leader-50-0/
  14. ^ a b Nathaniel Popper. Ugly Allegations Fly as Fabled WJC Duo Splits. The Forward. March 6, 2007, Available: http://www.forward.com/articles/ugly-allegations-fly-as-fabled-wjc-duo-splits/
  15. ^ Stephanie Strom. President of Jewish Congress Resigns After 3 Years' Turmoil. New York Times. May 8, 2007, Section A, Page 16, Column 4, 643 words
  16. ^ a b Nathaniel Popper. Bronfman Era Ends at World Jewish Congress. Jewish Daily Forward. May 11, 2007, Available: http://www.forward.com/articles/bronfman-era-ends-at-world-jewish-congress/
  17. ^ a b 'Zionist' offensive. Jewish Week. Online Edition. May 9, 2007, Available: http://www.washingtonjewishweek.com/main.asp?SectionID=30&SubSectionID=28&ArticleID=7103&TM=51269.98
  18. ^ Larry Cohler-Esses and Ran Dagoni. Holocaust Cash Went To Shadowy Pal Of Ousted WJC Leader. The Jewish Week. May 4, 2007, Available: http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/newscontent.php3?artid=14012
  19. ^ Letters to the editor. The WJC/Israel Singer Controversy. The Jewish Press. April 12, 2007. Available: http://www.jewishpress.com/page.do/21235/Letters_To_The_Editor.html
  20. ^ a b Alan Cooperman. Longtime Leader Quits International Jewish Group. Washington Post. May 8, 2007; Page A08, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/07/AR2007050701721.html
  21. ^ Ratner, Lizzy and Anna Schneider-Mayerson. Memo from Old Rumsfeld Aide May Sink Bronfman Heir. Matthew Bronfman's bid to lead the World Jewish Congress is turning into a big mess. New York Observer, May 7, 2007, Available: http://www.observer.com/2007/memo-old-rumsfeld-aide-may-sink-bronfman-heir
  22. ^ Lefkovits, Etgar. Top WJC official makes Arab jibe at EJC chief. Jerusalem Post. May 4, 2007, Available: http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull&cid=1178198609617

See also

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