Netty C. Gross-Horowitz

Bronfman, Singer and Herbits: Round three

I am not surprised, that Stephen E. Herbits attacked me in this forum regarding the relationship between the late liquor billionaire Edgar Bronfman and Israel Singer. After professing his loyalty to Singer in 2004 and even as late as the beginning of 2007, (in the midst of the scandal) Herbits flip-flopped and became Singer‘s no. 1 antagonist.

I have/had no reason to “whitewash” or “rehabilitate” Israel Singer and he also drove me crazy sometimes with his smooth double talk. (I knew Singer’s wife’s maiden family, the Kuhl’s, vaguely from the old ‘hood but I had nothing to do with them — I was a child and teen at the time. Singer’s late brother-in-law, was my own brother’s childhood friend.)

In truth, I don’t know what possessed Singer to call himself “Dr.” Born in July 1942, Singer reportedly once taught political science somewhere in New York (probably in Brooklyn College) and at Bar Ilan University, in Israel. This flirtation with academia, suggests that he may have had a higher degree. If he did, it probably came from the City University of New York’s Brooklyn College branch, in the poly-sci field. In fact, I do not know what kind of degree he had. Singer, himself, has reportedly acknowledged to various on-line media, that he was relying on honorary doctorates from Touro College and Yeshiva University for the “Dr.” title usage. This is sleazy, and drives real academics, who wrote true Ph.D’s, crazy, but done sometimes by prominent people. I am not justifying it. Also, there is something vaguely mitteleuropa -esque (that he could have picked up from his parents) about the “dr.” obsession.

Herbits insists that Singer was not responsible for his renewed interest in Judaism but that Bronfman was nurtured by intellectuals and thinkers. No doubt, as Herbits says, Bronfman—being Bronfman — had all kinds of Jewish characters around him who hoped to expose him to Judaism, but Singer main-lined the Yiddishkeit. Who else would cause (in 1998), Bronfman and the WJC, to submit an obit for Agudath Israel leader, Rabbi Moshe Sherrer with the correct Hebrew prayer? I am not aware that Edgar Bronfman was a big fan of the Agudah or knew that much Hebrew. Moreover Craig Horowitz (no relation) in a lengthy article in New York Magazine about the SNAFU at the WJC entitled “The Meltdown at the WJC” points out how different Bronfman and Singer were. Bronfman was a secular Jew, married five times; Singer was an Orthodox rabbi from Brooklyn, still married to the wife of his youth. Quoting a peer, Horowitz writes: “Bronfman sees Singer as his ticket to redemption.” He continues in his own words: “Having been a secular Jew most of his life, he (Bronfman) decided rather late that Judaism mattered to him, and Singer has, if you will, koshered him.”

The WJC scandal broke in 2003. As writer Craig Horowitz puts it, there were accusations of “mismanagement, bizarre bank transactions, stolen e-mails and computer files, intimidation, and cover-ups, which stretch from New York to Geneva to Jerusalem..” As someone who often wrote about charitable organizations, the transparency of many of these groups was murky; I wasn’t surprised. Singer had resigned from his secretary-general position in 2001 and was now a board member at the WJC. Principally, the Swiss WJC personnel were particularly startled by the movements of some $1.2 million which originated in New York, was deposited by Singer in a Swiss bank, and landed up in London, in the bank account of an Israeli lawyer and functionary, Zvi Barak.

The main accuser in the Singer-WJC affair was Isi Leibler, who detested Singer. Leibler was an acerbic Australian-Jewish millionaire and community leader, and one-time WJC functionary who had moved to Jerusalem and lived in great splendor. Leibler was supported by most of Switzerland’s WJC crowd. Top journalists, including charity reporter Stephanie Strom of the New York Times, were on his speed dial. Said to be Jewish Agency funds designed for Singer’s pension, Leibler, in speaking of the floating $1.2 million said it underscored just how unprofessionally things were at the once venerated WJC, founded in 1936. Bronfman, at one point, called Leibler a “dog.” The two men did not get along, to say the least.

Herbits, a long-time Seagrams executive and a self -proclaimed Washington Insider, (he worked with Cheyney and Rumsfeld) was brought on by Bronfman to introduce proper governance and transparency in 2004. Herbits says in the same New York article: “There are no illegalities in Israel Singer’s behavior at the WJC”. Moreover, a Nov. 2004 New York Jewish Week editorial by Gary Rosenblatt and Stewart Ain about the WJC battles said: “Herbits insisted that the transfer was looked into thoroughly, that there were no “fiscal irregularities,” and that the accusations were part of an attempt by Leibler to embarrass Edgar Bronfman, his political rival who has been president of the WJC since 1981.”

In 2006, the brouhaha, which refused to die down, reached the offices of then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer as Herbits notes. Spitzer found no criminal offense, but criticized the WJC’s financial management. I don’t recall Singer being asked to restitute money or being arrested or jailed. (But maybe Herbits was privy to information which I didn’t have.) Maybe Spitzer didn’t think it was so serious; or, maybe he was too spooked to indict a well-connected rabbi. (Spitzer’s own public humiliation with a prostitution ring was yet to unfold.)
Spitzer, indeed, ordered that Singer be barred from making fiduciary decisions in the WJC organization. Bronfman, initially defended Singer but fired him in 2007. There were fresh money-related accusations against Singer. Bronfman was aging…Only by May (of 2007) did Herbits, who had antagonized the Israeli and European branches of the WJC, begin to change his tune vis a vis Singer. According to his blog’s chronology and considering what he apparently/allegedly knew about Singer, Herbits should have denounced Singer much sooner. Why did Herbits defend Singer for so long?

The lesson from all this: All non-profits should be open and clean and organizations should know when to disperse, change agendas or downsize. For-profit investment operators too ought to be transparent. (I am thinking here of Bernard Madoff.) Once someone gives you their money, you have an obligation to tell them where it’s going — whether the sum is $1 or $1 million. I think Singer operated in the loose, go-go atmosphere of the times. Bronfman probably took a blind-eye approach half the time and knowingly or unknowingly let himself be taken advantage of. Hotel room charges were petty cash to him until they weren’t and he got pissed off. Singer should have been smart enough to know that sooner or later this would all end in tears. As for Herbits, I am sure historians will appreciate his claims. Since he seems to know the non-profit world well, I would like to know what he thinks of…

About the Author
Netty C. Gross-Horowitz is a journalist who worked for many years at The Jerusalem Report Together with Susan M. Weiss, she is co-author of "Jewish Marriage and Divorce Israel's Civil War," published by Brandeis University Press and the University Press of New England, December 2012.
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