Responsible exposure or scandal-mongering?
By JULIUS BERMAN
Photo by: Ariel Jerozolimski
While the Claims Conference is not immune from criticism, the critics have engaged in baseless charges.
Recently, The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) has come under a vicious attack from Isi Leibler in “Scandal at the Claims Conference” (July 13) and “The arrogance of Claims Conference leaders” (July 22). While the Claims Conference should certainly not be immune from criticism, Leibler has engaged in irresponsible invective and baseless charges against an organization that for nearly 60 years has been the leading international advocate for the rights of Holocaust victims and the primary source in caring for their needs.
Leibler’s diatribe raises many questions that need to be answered with the established facts. The most important assertion that Leibler makes is about the fraud perpetrated against Claims Conference compensation programs. Firstly, it was the Claims Conference – and not as implied by Leibler, the FBI – that discovered the fraud, a sophisticated criminal scheme, in which expertly falsified and phony documents were submitted to programs that make payments to Jewish victims of Nazism. These programs have been targeted by persons seeking to extract payments to which they were not entitled.
Upon discovering the fraud, the Claims Conference contacted US federal law enforcement authorities and notified the German government. In addition, the Claims Conference mounted and continues a vigorous and thorough investigation to determine the scope and source of the fraud, including a review of all applications and the creation of a task force. All of this information was made available to the board and the public.
Contrary to Leibler’s assertion that the organization has “trivialized” the issue and been “dismissive,” the Claims Conference has been aggressive in documenting the fraud and bringing all possible evidence to the US federal law enforcement authorities. Believing that this was of public interest, the Claims Conference released a statement explaining the events and provided all the information it was able within the context of an ongoing federal investigation.
This issue is being treated with the utmost gravity and seriousness, and it is appalling for Leibler to impugn the hardworking Claims Conference staff and dedicated voluntary board members who are working on this issue. The Claims Conference is outraged that criminals would exploit programs that are intended to assist needy Holocaust victims for their own financial gain. We have implemented additional measures to protect the system from being taken advantage of in the future. We also want to reassure the community that no survivor payments were affected during the fraud.
TO CITE another example of the gross irresponsibility reflected in the Leibler articles is the spurious claim that $1 billion is allegedly available that could be used to aid the poor, aged and infirm survivors. In the words of Leibler: “How can these directors sit around a table and not raise an outcry that with an investment portfolio of more than $1 billion in liquid funds, more of this money is not employed to ease the lives of the elderly, ailing survivors living in abject poverty?” Indeed, how could they? And, why would they? If that assertion was true, surely each of the 64 unpaid directors, each with an impeccable record of working in major Jewish organizations throughout the world, should be thrown out. However this figure and the overall assertion is a complete myth, like so much else that was written.
Firstly, $211 million of that sum is to be paid to the heirs of property appropriated by the Nazis. The source of most of the Claims Conference funds is recovered property in the former East Germany, and heirs, under Claims Conference rules, are entitled to receive recoveries.
Secondly, $360 million of these funds has already been allocated for home care, medicine, food and other vital services and programs. The Claims Conference committed the money to agencies which provide home care services to needy survivors.
The funds will be transferred to those agencies when receipts are received. Until such time, the money remains with the Claims Conference. Of course, all of the interest accrued during this time will also be made available for home care and other services.
Finally, out of the remaining $543 million, the Claims Conference allocates $136 million per year for social services for Holocaust survivors and a very small fraction for Holocaust remembrance and education. This means that this amount will last for only four more years. Unfortunately, Leibler and his sources either ignored this fact, or were unaware. What makes this even more problematic is the fact that all the information, including balance sheet and detailed explanation, is fully open and accessible to the public and can be accessed through our Web site (www.claimscon.org/financials).
To my mind, reporting the “billion dollar myth” as fact is much worse than simply misstating a fact. Those that have perpetrated this myth unfortunately mislead the poor survivors into believing that there is a “pot of gold” on the other side of the locked door that, if opened, would greatly alleviate the physical and mental conditions in which they are suffering. This is the height of irresponsibility and is shameful.
HOWEVER, THE damage runs even deeper.
The Claims Conference has an urgent mission to explain the plight of Holocaust survivors to the world audience and bring additional resources to alleviate their plight. Negotiations with governments, 65 years after the end of the war and in the midst of the world financial crisis, become more difficult every year. Despite all of the obstacles, the Claims Conference has been uniquely successful in increasing the amounts available for survivors.
It is outrageous to undermine these delicate negotiations by making false accusations to the media when the true facts are available in open sources.
The Claims Conference, as the largest provider of home care, medicine and food for Holocaust survivors, is painfully aware of the inadequacy of the current funds to meet their worldwide needs. Furthermore, all of our demographic data indicates that survivors’ needs will far outlast the next four years and the last available Claims Conference funds.
Instead of falsely accusing the Claims Conference of hoarding funds, we invite all those who are truly interested in survivors’ needs, not to engage in malicious and unfounded gossip, but to help spread the word about the needs of survivors and engage in an intensive fund-raising drive to benefit Nazi victims around the world. Given the Claims Conference’s knowledge about the needs of Nazi victims, we would be thrilled to cooperate in such an endeavor, which could call attention to the needs among these nowelderly survivors who suffered unprecedented horrors.
While some are engaged in assaulting an organization dedicated to survivors needs, others fully comprehend that the Claims Conference is the primary vehicle for alleviating survivors suffering.
Major philanthropists and foundations have entrusted us to ensure that their money will see to survivors needs.
The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, one of the largest Jewish foundations in the world, has just announced a $10 million fund for emergency needs for the victims of Nazism. To their credit, the Weinberg Foundation trustees did the research, studied these issues and concluded that on top of all of the Claims Conference contributions and our four-year spend-down plan, additional funds are needed for survivors. They asked the Claims Conference to administer the funds and their visionary leadership in providing supplemental funds should be an example to all.
In the meantime, Claims Conference work continues at full speed. We have already allocated more than $215 million this year ($136 million from recovered property, another $80 million received through negotiations between the Claims Conference and the German and Austrian governments, and other funds such as those provided to the Claims Conference by the US Federal courts under various settlements) for home care, medicine, food programs, social welfare services for Shoah survivors and other programs in 46 countries.
Nevertheless, as we well know, the needs of Holocaust victims are greater than the resources available. For this reason, we need to work even harder and cannot be distracted from this vital mission by hearsay and gossip.
The nearly 60-year historic endeavor to obtain compensation and restitution for survivors of the Shoah and victims’ heirs has been, and continues to be, unparalleled in Jewish and indeed human history.
Had it not accomplished so much and striven so mightily on behalf of the survivors, the Claims Conference might not have received this attention and been so bitterly criticized.
If obtaining $70 billion for Holocaust victims; recovering property; providing food packages and home care; and establishing a historical precedent for compensation and restitution means that the Claims Conference will continue to be a target for perennial critics, then let the critics continue writing, and we’ll continue helping survivors live out their final years in greater comfort and dignity.
The writer is the chairman of the Claims Conference.