Text size

The news of Israel Singer's dismissal from all of his posts at the World Jewish Congress continued to make waves in the world of Jewish organizations this week. For more than two decades Singer was the pillar of this small, intimate world. But in a telephone conference call with members of the WJC steering committee on Wednesday, March 14, the organization's president, billionaire Edgar Bronfman, announced that Singer would no longer be working with the WJC. Singer first heard of his dismissal while listening to the conference call from the sidelines and was not given an opportunity to respond. "He didn't even get a gold watch," said one of Singer's friends ironically.

This week it emerged that Bronfman is accusing Singer of stealing his money. "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."

For many Jewish activists, the words "Bronfman has thrown Singer out of the WJC" were incomprehensible. Not only was the dismissal itself a shock, but also the way in which Bronfman chose to fire the person who had been considered his most faithful servant for 30 years.

The connection between the two men began in 1975, when Singer translated for Bronfman remarks made by Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at a World Jewish Congress convention. Over the years they became inseparable. Stuart Eizenstat, who got to know the two men when he served as undersecretary of state for economic and business affairs in president Bill Clinton's administration, has compared their relationship to that of father and son. In his book "Imperfect Justice," Eizenstat remarked on the two opposite types who complemented one another: the restless, shrewd Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn and the assimilated, arrogant, well-tailored Canadian gvir. Bronfman taught Singer high politics and learned basic concepts in Judaism in return. At the peak of their activity, during their campaign against the Swiss banks, Bronfman and Singer succeeded in capturing the imagination of an entire generation of Jews. They took on the most cynical tycoons and came out victorious with the money of the murdered Jews of Europe.

What brought a beautiful friendship like this to its end? Singer's close associates claimed at first that he had been fired because he refused to intervene in internal struggles on Bronfman's behalf. "Singer told Bronfman that he wasn't prepared to fight Jews," related one of his close friends. Another explanation was that Singer disappointed Bronfman when he did not devote himself sufficiently to the election of Bronfman's son Matthew as the next president of the WJC.

These explanations are partial at best. The person mainly responsible for Singer's fall is Singer himself. Just like the hero in a Greek tragedy, he was gripped by the intoxication of power. He habitually depicted himself as the person who with his own two hands extracted $20 billion from the governments of the West in return for lost Jewish property. He 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.

His arrogance and hauteur led Singer to make the mistake of his life, when he brought about the dismissal of WJC vice president Isi Liebler in January 2005. From that moment on Singer found himself facing a stubborn, determined and vengeful enemy. The WJC became the target of an endless spate of investigations, clarifications and reports about corruption and irregularities, in all of which Singer played a leading role.

The attorney general of New York State, Eliot Spitzer (now its governor), cleared the WJC and its head of suspicion of criminal actions, but the irregularities he did uncover left them wounded and bleeding. The effort that the WJC invested in softening the Spitzer report exacted a high price from the organization. Its reputation crashed. Its coffers emptied of cash. And now there is a new investigation of the WJC underway, this time by the federal Internal Revenue Service. Israel Singer, once the WJC's main asset, became an intolerable burden during the past two years.

In interviews he has given to the media in recent days, Stephen Herbits, the WJC's secretary general, has said that Singer's expulsion will not harm the organization. Herbits is mistaken. Even if he succeeds in transforming the WJC into a centralized and efficient organization, he will not find a replacement for Singer's personal charm, which captivated Jews all over the world. With Singer's dismissal, the WJC has lost its soul, and it is very doubtful that it will be found again.