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The facts on Israel Singer and the WJC

A sympathetic portrait of the former World Jewish Congress secretary-general ignored his severe -- and proven -- misdeeds

Netty C. Gross’ op-ed, “Edgar Bronfman’s Death and the Absence of Dr. Israel Singer,” is fraught with errors and does a disservice to the man whose image she attempts to rehabilitate.

The foundational premise of her piece is that the New York Times committed a sin of omission in not mentioning Israel Singer in the official obituary of Edgar M. Bronfman. To the contrary, the New York Times did Mr Singer a favor. The last time Mr Singer was mentioned by the New York Times it was in the context of his misuse of charitable funds.

Ms. Gross’ piece is fraught with factual inaccuracies that fall well beneath her standing as the top-rate journalist that she is known to be. “Dr. Israel Singer,” as she writes in her piece, is anything but. Although he represents himself as such, Mr. Singer never earned an academic doctorate; rather he received two honorary doctorate degrees, one from Touro College and one from Yeshiva University.

Next, Ms. Gross writes, that Singer left the World Jewish Congress “in 2007 over Bronfman’s allegations (never proven) that Singer embezzled WJC funds.” This could not be further from the truth. First, the New York State Attorney General’s investigation concluded that Singer misused charitable funds, ordered him to pay restitution, and banned him from a position of fiscal or management authority in the organization. To pay his legal expenses and return money he inappropriately took from the WJC, Mr. Singer borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars from Mr. Bronfman. Mr. Singer never repaid these loans, and never completed making restitution to the WJC.

Gross continues, “The 2007 dispute between Bronfman and Singer was shocking but largely seen to be inner Jewish macher-dom politics.” It was anything but. After the conclusion of the Attorney General’s investigation, in 2006, it was discovered that Mr. Singer had lied to everyone about his infamous transfers of $1.5 million of the WJC’s money. As it turns out, Mr. Singer did not simply move the money from one WJC bank account to another; rather he originally attempted to move the money to a Swiss Bank account at Safra Bank in Zurich Switzerland, number 15.03.49. Record of that account did not exist in any WJC file, and Mr. Singer refused to identify the account’s owner. When the documentary evidence of this attempted transfer was discovered, allies of Mr. Singer sought to have it destroyed. It was this and subsequent discoveries that caused Mr Singer’s termination.

Gross claims that “it was “Sruli who taught Edgar everything there was to know about Jews, Yiddishkeit and so forth.” This is simply false and denies the important roles scores of Jewish intellectual and political leaders had in studying and working with Mr. Bronfman. A survey of the recent obituaries, testimonials and reflections from dozens of Jewish leaders and activist testify to the diverse group of thoughtful people Mr. Bronfman surrounded himself with. Mr. Singer was one of many, and certainly not the central figure.

Gross writes of Singer, “He often told me personally that he agreed with my point of view regarding paying heirs and their descendants first (from Jewish-owned, and Nazi confiscated property in former East Germany), before parsing the money to public Jewish organizations and groups that claimed they needed money. At least that’s what he said.” Ms. Gross’ skepticism is justified. In a 2002 article published in the periodical Shma, Mr Singer was the first Jewish official of note to call for codifying a policy of disbursing Holocaust restitution funds for Jewish education and other projects under what he called the 80-20 rule, where 80% of funds would go to survivors and 20% would go to other projects in the Jewish community. This was a controversial position that is still not settled.

Gross passes judgment, “The violent dumping of Singer over allegations which were never proven did not seem entirely fair or legally sound.” Ms. Gross’ assertion that the allegations “were never proven” is false. First, the attorney general found substantial amounts of wrongdoing on Singer’s part and went so far as to ban him from any fiduciary role over charitable funds. Second, the evidence discovered at the WJC was of a long and sustained pattern of fiscal abuse. Third, Mr Singer was an “at will” employee and was subject to all of the standard rules of the workplace. His termination was sound, justified, and entirely legal. The only miscarriage of justice associated with his conduct was that he never faced judicial authorities.

Gross decries: “There was talk at the time that Singer had no pension and this, in theory, was his motivation for allegedly sticking his hand in the cookie jar.” First, Mr. Singer would have had the same pension that he provided, or failed to provide for others during the decades he was the top professional at the WJC. Second, when Mr. Singer first raised concern over his future financial security with Mr. Bronfman, Mr. Bronfman personally and with his own money created and funded trust funds for Mr. Singer, his wife Evelyn, and each of their children. To justify Mr. Singer’s actions on the grounds that he was somehow denied a secure future is simply wrong. And third, Ms. Gross correctly points out, Mr Singer “was not a poor man by any means, a son-in-law of a wealthy industrialist, Julius Kuhl.”

Finally, Ms. Gross is correct in concluding that Mr. Singer “does not deserve to be written out of an amazing period in Jewish history.” The totality of Mr. Singer’s actions will ultimately be judged by history, and in doing so, history will take caution in ensuring that it has all of its facts correct.

About the Author
Stephen E. Herbits served as Secretary General of the World Jewish Congress from 2004 until 2007. He had previously worked as an executive for Edgar M. Bronfman at the Seagram Company and as an adviser to Mr. Bronfman from his retirement in 1997. Mr. Herbits has also served Five US Secretaries of Defense in various capacities.
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