NEW YORK (JTA) -- South African steel magnate Mendel Kaplan has officially entered the race for the interim presidency of the World Jewish Congress, setting the stage for a four-person contest that will be decided June 10.
The outcome will end weeks of speculation over who will succeed the
president, Edgar Bronfman, who is stepping down following years of turmoil within the organization.
The WJC, with regional operations around the world, is best known for securing billions in Holocaust restitution funds and fighting anti-Semitism. But its reputation has suffered as a result of political infighting and allegations of financial mismanagement.
Insiders say they are looking toward ending that chapter of the organization and refocusing its energies on issues such as Iran and anti-Semitism.
Four candidates have handed in their declarations of candidacy to the office of the WJC secretariat, according to a WJC official.
In addition to Kaplan, the current chairman of the WJC's exective, they are Ronald Lauder, the cosmetics heir and president of the Jewish National Fund; Einat Wilf, an Israeli writer and activist; and Vladimir Herzberg, a Russian-Israeli nuclear physicist.
Lauder will run on a ticket with Matthew Bronfman, the chairman of the WJC's finance committee and the son of Edgar Bronfman, who has led the organization for nearly 30 years. The younger Bronfman is running for the chair of the group's governing board, which will also be selected on Sunday.
Those in Wilf's camp say there is momentum surrounding the 36-year-old who wants to reform the WJC. Herzberg, who entered the race June 1, appears a miracle longshot at best.
The race appears to be largely a showdown between Kaplan and the billionaire ticket of Lauder-Bronfman.
There was much speculation that Kaplan would run for WJC president when Edgar Bronfman announced his impending retirement in early May. Kaplan at the time verbally expressed to the WJC's steering committee his intention to run, and he was backed immediately by Pierre Bessnainou, president of the European Jewish Congress and a WJC steering committee member.
But late last week there was speculation as well that Kaplan might not run, as he had not submitted a written declaration of his candidacy to the WJC by the June 1 deadline that the WJC professional staff had requested.
Some observers suggested that he could have been put off by the Lauder-Bronfman pairing. Matthew Bronfman, according to sources close to Kaplan, initially had a deal in place to run on a ticket with Kaplan.
Bessnainou told JTA that he was "shocked" that Bronfman ultimately teamed with Lauder.
While other parties have launched media campaigns to drum up support for their candidates, Kaplan has remained elusive, refusing requests for media interviews.
Those around him laud the 70-year-old steel magnate as a staunch Zionist who has helped build up Jewish infrastructure in South Africa, where he lives. Kaplan runs Cape Gate, a South African-based steel manufacturing firm that his father, Isaac, started in Lithuania during the 1920s, according to a longtime Kaplan associate, Isaac Joffe.
The company opened its first plant in Israel in 1975 because "we were all meshuga Zionists," said Joffe, a Cape Gate board member for 40 years. "We just felt these sort of businesses had to be in Israel."
Cape Gate, which is called the Yehuda welded mesh company in Israel, now has three plants there employing about 600 Israelis.
In the Jewish world, Kaplan is most heralded for his position as the board chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. During his tenure from 1987 to 1996, the agency was instrumental in the immigration of more than 1 million immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet union and the emergency airlift of nearly 15,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 36 hours in May 1991
Kaplan helped plan the absorption of the new immigrants, according to Andrea Arbel, who wrote a book about Kaplan's term as chairman, "Riding the Wave: The Jewish Agency's Role in the Mass Aliyah of Soviet and Ethiopian Jewry to Israel, 1987-1995."
Some who knew him during his tenure call him a strong leader. They echo Arbel, who said Kaplan "knows how to make a decision and get things done."
Herzberg is a former Russian nuclear scientist who moved to Israel in 1996. He is now a professor of economics at Ben-Gurion University. In 1999 he posed a longshot challenge to Ariel Sharon for the head of the Likud Party.
Herzberg says he thinks the WJC should shift its focus to Israel.
"The state is in trouble. I know what it's like to live and struggle here in Israel," he told JTA in an e-mail exchange. "Lauder and others don't know the problems we face from firsthand experience.
"The first thing the WJC should do is provide aid to Israelis struggling to make ends meet, and those in Sderot facing Kassam rockets. This organization needs to come down from the sky, and come down to the level of the simple people here in Israel."
Who will win the race for WJC president is anyone's guess.
The WJC executive committee will meet at 1 p.m. Sunday at the organization's offices in New York City to make its selection for interim president. The 23-member executive committee is made up of the steering committee and the WJC's vice presidents.
The WJC's 90-member governing board will meet at 4 p.m. that day at offices of the UJA-Federation of New York to either approve the executive committee's choice or hear further nominations from the floor and hold a multi-candidate election. The governing board is made up of the executive committee and delegates representing WJC member regions and organizations.
The interim president will serve until 2009, when the WJC holds its next plenary and selects a permanent president. At a plenary the election is conducted by a show of hands, though a secret ballot can be conducted if 100 or more delegates request it, according to a WJC official who asked not to be identified.
It is not yet known whether the June 10 election will be conducted via secret ballot, roll call or show of hands, though Bessnainou has requested a secret ballot, according to the WJC official.
Lauder says he is looking forward to the competition.
"Mendel has been involved with the WJC for a long time, and this is exactly what I have been pushing for -- an open and fair election," he told JTA through his special assistant, Warren Kozak. He added that his campaign is going "very favorably. But we won't know until Sunday."