(photo credit: Courtesy)
When attending the Claims Conference, one enters into two parallel
The first is inhabited by its workers and beneficiaries. As
one of the largest Jewish charities in the world, it has, over the course of 60
years, distributed over $70 billion to hundreds of thousands of Holocaust
survivors, in over 40 countries.
More remarkably, almost 70 years after
the end of the Second World War it has seen a massive expansion in its work in
the last few years. Partly, this is the result of increased longevity.
Survivors, like the rest of us, are lasting longer than expected and, like the
rest of us, their health requirements only increase with age.
however, it is the result of the Conference’s ability to persuade the German
government to increase the assistance it gives to survivors. Not only have the
sums given increased, but the categories of victims eligible for support have
been widened. As an example, whereas before, to qualify for assistance a
survivor had to have lasted six months in a concentration camp, now the Germans
have accepted that all former concentration camp inmates can benefit, regardless
of the length of their incarceration.
Similarly, qualifications have been
shortened for other survivors. For former ghetto inmates the period has
decreased from 18 to three months (such as for those in the Budapest Ghetto) and
for hidden survivors, from 18 to six months. Be it for one-time payments (like
those Nazi victims from the former Soviet Union or North Africa) or pensions
(like survivors who were in open ghettos) over 130,000 survivors now qualify for
the first time. The effect of this can be seen across the range of programs
carried out by the Conference. For example, the funding for home care support
has gone up by 700 percent in the past six years.
To accomplish this the
Conference staff, led by Greg Schneider, have had to convince the German Federal
government not only of the need to increase the provision made for survivors,
but also that the Conference had the efficiency, professionalism and integrity
to administer the programs effectively. Stuart Eizenstadt, former US deputy
secretary of the Treasury and ambassador to the EU, has been at the sharp end,
and described the Conference’s achievements in glowing terms.
however, another universe: that of governance, committees and publicity in the
Jewish world, and here the Conference’s record has been less felicitous. Its
board is seen as a self- perpetuating oligarchy accused of neglecting
Above all, some years ago the Conference was the victim of a
massive fraud amounting to $57.5 million carried by false claimants with the
help of some of its staff.
More embarrassing still, however, it emerged
during the criminal proceedings that an anonymous whistle-blower did raise
concerns back in 2001 – and these were not effectively followed
Although the culprits are in prison, and the people most responsible
at the Conference are departed or dead, nevertheless, it is clear that the
governance procedures of the Conference were not fit for purpose at the
It is true that a subsequent clue was picked up, and dealt with
immediately, by the present management but there still needs to be a proper
review of the functioning of the organization. The recent Conference meeting in
New York, therefore, while endorsing the current slate of officers, in the
absence of any alternative, insisted that there be an immediate strategic
review. The Board of Deputies asked, to general agreement, that there should be
no new elections until the results of that review had been made known to, and
reviewed by, the various organizations making up the Conference.
this may dampen down criticism. What is most important, however, is that the
vital work done by the Conference should continue, and certain essential facts
are not overlooked. Reports have suggested that as a result of the fraud
survivors have been deprived. In fact, however, the victim was the German
government whose attitude, having engaged the leading accountancy firm Deloitte,
has been to entrust the Conference with still more responsibility in
administering its programs, including vetting the over one hundred thousand
claimants who will now benefit from the Conference for the first
Uniquely among Jewish charities, the Conference has not had to
raise money from the Jewish community. Its task, apart from its wonderful work,
has been to impress the German government, and their advisers, of its
efficiency, integrity and ability to handle further fraud attempts; which, with
the vast increase in the numbers of beneficiaries, are bound to be made. So far
it has succeeded in this. Impressing the Jewish world and learning to play
politics is a different skill, but one that it also needs to learn.
author is president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.