Sam Norich is a man of absolute integrity. He deserved better – much, much
better – than the shabby treatment to which he was subjected at the recent
meeting of the board of directors of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims
Against Germany, commonly known as the Claims Conference.
Norich dared to
question the actions and behavior of the Claims Conference leadership with
respect to a 2001 anonymous letter warning of improprieties that eventually
morphed into a $57 million fraud. For this act of lèse majesté he was turned
into a virtual pariah.
Norich and I have been friends for close to 35
years and we share a common history. Our respective parents, all originally from
Poland, survived the ghettos and camps of the Shoah. His mother and my parents
were liberated at Bergen-Belsen; his father was liberated at Dachau. We were
both born in Displaced Persons camps in Germany, Norich at Feldafing in 1947, I
at Bergen-Belsen the following year.
Norich went on to serve as a vice
president of the World Jewish Congress (1975-1981) and executive director of the
YIVO Institute for Jewish Research before assuming his present position as
publisher of The Forward. He has a lifetime of unquestioned commitment to
Holocaust remembrance as well as to Jewish social and political
To be clear, Norich was not the only one at the Claims
Conference meeting who challenged the imposition of what amounts to a
restrictive administrative hegemony on the proceedings. Mervyn Smith of the
South African Jewish Board of Deputies and Stephan Kramer of the Central Council
of Jews in Germany also spoke out in protest.
For the record, three
simple, utterly non-confrontational questions asked back in May of this year by
World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder without any pre-judgment – was
the existence of the 2001 anonymous letter ever disclosed to the Claims
Conference board members? If yes, when? If not, why not? – have never been
formally answered, either before or during the meeting.
chairman Natan Sharansky made a plea for an end to the old boys’ club atmosphere
that epitomizes the organization. Michael Schneider, a board member on behalf of
the WJC, read a statement on behalf of Lauder and Sharansky expressing their
“great disappointment and dismay at the failure on the part of the Claims
Conference leadership to disclose the existence of the anonymous 2001 letter” to
the board and calling for the implementation of organizational reforms with the
participation of a majority of “prominent representatives of the Jewish
community and the State of Israel independent of the Claims Conference lay and
Unfortunately, this particular suggestion was
not adopted by the board although a substantial minority did in fact vote in
favor of a variation of the Lauder/Sharansky proposal.
But my purpose in
writing today is not to rehash the issues discussed at the meeting. Rather, I
cannot gloss over the utterly unwarranted animus expressed toward Norich after
he argued for transparency in organizational governance.
who had worked closely with him for years denounced him as a traitor to the
cause of helping Holocaust survivors in their declining years. Such over-the-top
virulence in the face of nothing more than a disagreement on a fundamental issue
of principle proved to be too much for Norich. He asked for the floor again and
announced his resignation from the board as an ultimate act of
In response, the chairman of the Claims Conference said...
nothing. He listened in stony silence as Norich spoke and then opted not to
express even pro forma gratitude for Norich’s many years of dedicated service to
No words of thanks for the time and energy Norich gave
to the Claims Conference over the course of a decade as a member of numerous
committees, one of which he chaired. No appreciation whatsoever of the fact that
Norich had steadfastly defended the chairman and the organization against many
of their critics in the past. No acceptance of the resignation with regret. No
wishing Norich well. Nothing.
When Norich finished his remarks and got up
to leave the meeting, Michael Schneider, Stephan Kramer, Abraham Lehrer – also
from Germany – and I went over to speak with him in the corridor.
the meeting continued without further interruption.
I was especially
appalled by the behavior of those Holocaust survivors and children of survivors
in the Claims Conference leadership who had regularly turned to Norich for help
in the past. He had always been their staunchest ally and advocate. Now, they
seemed to have forgotten that he is one of their own.
In the interest of
full disclosure, I am the general counsel of one member organization of the
Claims Conference and serve on the executive committee of another. I am writing
this article, however, in my personal capacity, and the sentiments expressed
herein are mine alone.
We cannot allow those who express disparate views
within Jewish organizations or the Jewish community at large to be vilified or
ostracized. Forced intellectual conformity is not merely stifling and
undemocratic by definition, more often than not it is evidence of a refusal to
come to terms with inconvenient realities.
Norich’s voice is an important
one that should not be cavalierly dismissed or ignored. He certainly does not
deserve to be treated with contempt.
Even at this late date, the Claims
Conference should make every effort to get him to reconsider and resume his
leadership role in the organization. There are far too few individuals like him
in our midst for us to be able to afford his absence from the critical tasks on
behalf of the survivors that the Claims Conference must confront in the
The author is the son of survivors of Auschwitz and
Bergen-Belsen, teaches about the law of genocide and war crimes trials at the
law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.