July 21, 2005

Israelis fail to gain more control of Claims

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

As the powerful board of the largest Holocaust restitution agency met this week in New York behind closed doors to discuss the billions of dollars it collects and distributes, critics seeking greater power in the agency charged that it is insufficiently responsive to the needs of the Holocaust survivors.

No stranger to controversy, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany again found itself at the center of a battle of control over its discretionary funding-some $90 million per year in the form of grants to survivor organizations and Holocaust commemoration. This time, some survivors and Israeli representatives were agitating for greater control over the committees that allocate those funds, which go to everything from Israeli nursing homes that treat survivors to Yiddish theater troops that entertain them.

The matters of contention this year were hardly new-many of those complaining sounded identical arguments in years past-but the debate still evokes raw emotions from old men who speak with tears in their eyes about fellow survivors suffering the indignities of poverty decades after enduring the horrors of Nazism, or of the importance of allocating money to make sure the world remembers the genocide against the Jews.

"Nobody's going to walk away from the meetings and say they did not have the opportunity to advance an issue they believe in," promised Julius Berman, chairman of the Claims Conference, in an interview before the meeting.

In discussions on Tuesday, however, much of the talk was about who should sit around the table. The Claims Conference board meetings are closed to the public and open only to members of its board, created in 1951 by an array of Jewish groups to advance Jewish material claims against Germany. That board has added only three member organizations since its founding.

"The proposal is to appoint a committee for modernizing the organizational structure of the Claims Conference," Moshe Sanbar, the former Bank of Israel governor who is chairman of the Claims Conference's executive committee, wrote in a letter to the 54-year-old Claims Conference before the meeting.

Sanbar's proposal was one of several brought up by conference members seeking to shift control of the Claims Conference's billions more toward Israelis and survivor groups. Noach Flug, chairman of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, went so far as to propose creating a new senior leadership committee to control the Claims Conference, comprised of the World Jewish Congress, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the main survivor organizations in Israel and the United States.

Last year, in a similar effort to gain greater control of the money, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the conference to create a "blue-ribbon panel" to "increase efficiency, transparency, relevance and coordination in restitution efforts."

But like Netanyahu's proposal, this year's proposals were defeated in votes by the conference's board, keeping the status quo in the ongoing struggle for control over what amounts to the Jewish world's wealthiest organization.

At the end of 2004, the Claims Conference had $913 million in assets, according to audit documents. In the last 12 months, the conference has distributed some $1 billion. Though the vast majority of that money is distributed according to the terms of longstanding agreements with Germany and Austria, the conference has complete discretion over about 10% of that money-funds generated from the sale of unclaimed Jewish properties recovered from the former East Germany.

The contentious debate over those funds is on a constant simmer, and it flares up every time the conference's board meets.

One of the main issues of contention is the formula the conference uses for doling out that money, under which 80 percent of the proceeds from the sale of the unclaimed properties goes to welfare organizations that benefit survivors and 20 percent goes to Holocaust education and commemoration projects.

"What we are getting from the Claims Conference are public relations statements. They make pie charts and graphs to impress the public, but they are spending money not beneficial to the Holocaust survivors in whose name the money was obtained," said Leo Rechter, president of the National Association of Jewish Child Holocaust Survivors, which is not a member of the Claims Conference board. "When you have 25 percent of survivors living in poverty, you can no longer afford to take money away from them and give it away to other causes."

Critics, including some but not all survivors, argue that the conference should be making cash grants to needy survivors rather than funding organizations that provide welfare, that all the conference's discretionary funds should be spent on survivors rather than spending some $18 million annually on Holocaust education, and that the conference should distribute its funds more rapidly rather than save money for future needs.

There are Holocaust survivors on both sides of the debate.

To deflect focus from such issues of contention, conference officials come to the annual board meeting at New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust armed with PowerPoint presentations detailing their accomplishments to the 100 or so delegates from more than two dozen Jewish groups assembled from around the world.

"We've had a very busy year, and the results speak for themselves," Greg Schneider, chief operating officer at the Claims Conference, told the Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.

Over the course of the last year, the conference has expanded the class of aging survivors eligible for funds from Germany for home care, got restitution money for victims of Nazism in North Africa, expanded the class of survivors of Hungarian labor and concentration camps eligible for compensation, and narrowed the gap between the pensions paid to survivors living in Eastern Europe versus those living in the US, Israel and Western Europe.

"We have not one survivor that will be treated in a matter than is not dignified," said Israel Singer, president of the Claims Conference and its chief negotiator with European governments. Noting the $1 billion the conference distributed over the last year, he said, "We are accelerating the pace of giving."

But Elan Steinberg, a former colleague of Singer's from the World Jewish Congress and a board member of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which is charged with securing money from European governments other than Germany and Austria, said the Claims Conference's manner and pace of giving is shameful.

"They are sitting on a mountain of cash while sick, elderly Holocaust survivors are suffering today," Steinberg said.

"I know the argument that five, ten, fifteen years from now there will still be Holocaust survivors in need," he said. "They basically argue that they will inadequately service survivors today so that they can inadequately service even fewer survivors in the future. It is morally unacceptable to have three-quarters of a billion dollars in the bank when you hear what can only be described as horror stories about the situation of survivors all over the world."

As the meetings drew to a close Wednesday, Hillary Kessler-Godin, the conference's director of communications, said, "There was a healthy discussion, a give-and-take, but everything will remain as it is."