Israel Singer, one of the heads of the World Jewish Congress and a leading figure in the Jewish world for the past 30 years, was dismissed in an unexpected move Wednesday from all his posts in the WJC, Haaretz has learned.
The decision to fire Singer was announced by WJC President Edgar Bronfman and approved by the WJC steering committee. It was, however, received with great surprise by Congress officials around the world.
The development marks an all-time low in the history of the organization, which represents Jewish communities in more than 80 countries around the world.
At Bronfman's initiative, the WJC steering committee held a conference call Wednesday, at the start of which Bronfman said that Singer was no longer associated with the World Jewish Congress or any of its affiliates. The steering committee is the organization's most senior decision-making body, and includes Congress leaders from all over the world.
After the announcement, Bronfman did pay tribute to Singer's efforts of the past 30 years to advance Jewish causes, including the emigration of Jews in the former Soviet Union.
"For his work on behalf of Soviet Jewry, the freeing of Mendelovich, Edelstein and [Natan] Sharanksy, exposing the Nazi past of Kurt Waldheim, securing nearly $20 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," Bronfman said.
Singer was one of the participants in the conference call but was not given the opportunity to speak, and declined Thursday to respond to the dismissal. His associates, however, said Wednesday that he was shocked by the news.
Haaretz has learned that several of the participants in the conference call, who are considered allies of Singer, wanted to express their objections to the decision, but were also prevented from doing so due to "technical difficulties."
The heads of the Jewish Congress in Europe and Israel on Thursday informed Bronfman that they were shocked by the decision, and threatened to pull their organizations from the WJC if he did not revoke Singer's dismissal and a series of other decisions they were informed of on Wednesday.
"I was shocked when you announced and informed the WJC steering committee via telephone that you have taken the decision to fire Israel Singer after 30 years of devoted service to the Jewish cause and this without any consultation," wrote President of the European Jewish Congress Pierre Besnainou. "I consider, at least, we need to get more explanation."
Members of the Congress said Wednesday that they believed the dismissal came against the background of Singer's refusal to back associates of Bronfman in their dispute with the Israel Jewish Congress over the nomination of its next director-general.
The secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, Stephen Herbits, decided several months ago to fire the director-general of the Israel Jewish Congress, Bobby Brown, and appoint in his place Israel's ambassador to the European Union, Oded Eran. Herbits' decision was opposed by the treasurer of the World Jewish Congress, MK Shai Hermesh of Kadima.
Hermesh and the heads of the Israeli branch of the World Jewish Congress called the move damaging to the organization's efforts and branded it an attempt to transform the Congress from a democratic global body into one ruled by the American billionaire. In the wake of this dispute, it was decided to find a new director-general for Israel.
On Wednesday night, the WJC steering committee accepted Bronfman's request for the right to veto any replacement for Brown, and agreed that it had until March 31 to find a new secretary-general, after which Bronfman would make the appointment himself. The committee also okayed a suspension of funding for the organization in Israel due to "irregularities."
A spokesman for the World Jewish Congress on Thursday denied that Singer's dismissal was connected to the appointment of an IJC director-general, and claimed instead that he had tried to ease tensions between the WJC and its Israel branch.
The WJC also said that Herbits "has never insisted on a particular candidate" for the position. "Ambassador Oded Eran was appointed by the WJC Steering Committee in July 2006 to serve as a WJC Representative in Israel. He was never designated to be the director-general of the WJC Israel Branch," its spokesman told Haaretz.
The WJC also denied that the Wednesday conference call was beset by technical difficulties that prevented certain participants from contributing, but said that it had contacted the telephone company "to conduct and complete an investigation into the matter and to provide the WJC with a written report of what transpired."
The WJC also said that those who experienced difficulties during the conference call "could have contacted the Verizon [telephone company] operator to correct the problem, or Mr. Bronfman's office."
Singer began his work in the World Jewish Congress in 1972. He served as secretary-general of the organization from 1986 until 2001, and from 2001 until 2006 served as chairman of the Congress' administrative council.
Singer and Bronfman became the most well-known pair in the Jewish world in the 1980s, when they led a public campaign to expose the Nazi past of former United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim. In the 1990s, the duo facilitated the long-standing negotiations with Swiss banks over compensation payments for Jewish proprietors of dormant bank accounts.
Over the years, Singer and Bronfman held hundreds of meetings with prime ministers, politicians and senior religious leaders around the world over the restitution of Jewish property, the struggle with anti-Semitism and Israel.
Singer's activities in the World Jewish Congress helped him achieve a long list of senior positions within the Jewish world, including as president of the Jewish Claims Conference and chairman of the Policy Council of the World Jewish Congress.
Singer's prestige fell after allegations of his involvement in financial irregularities within the World Jewish Congress. The allegations were brought for investigation by New York State Attorney General, Eliot Spitzer, who revealed that Singer had used some of the money for personal use.