Claims Conference sues over TV show

Says documentary "made us look like a mafia;" vows to use NIS 4m. it seeks in damages for welfare.

By HAVIV RETTIG GUR
September 4, 2008 23:50
3 minute read.
Claims Conference sues over TV show

meroz vilnai federbush 224.88. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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The Claims Conference filed a NIS 4 million lawsuit in the Jerusalem District Court on Thursday against journalists Guy Meroz and Orli Vilnai-Federbush over their documentary Musar Hashilumim (The Morality of Payments), which aired in Israel in early May. The film accuses the leadership of the organization of withholding funds from poor, elderly Holocaust survivors in order to ensure its own existence after those survivors have passed away. Specific allegations made in the film include that the conference holds some $1 billion in funds it is refusing to disburse to deserving survivors. The Claims Conference's full name is the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. The 78-page lawsuit is blunt, objecting to the "colossal lies, distortions and falsifications" in the film and calling the journalistic work behind it "repulsive" and "distorted." "Even to hint that the Claims Conference would prefer that survivors die in hunger rather than transfer them money is to put forward harsh accusations against an organization through which 600,000 Holocaust survivors throughout the world have received almost $70b.," the conference said in a statement on Thursday. Filmmaker Vilnai-Federbush was "happy about the lawsuit," she told The Jerusalem Post. "This is an important day. It's the first time an Israeli court will be able to force the Claims Conference to open its books, after many years in which the leaders of the conference refused to recognize the right of an Israeli body to do so." According to the conference, most of the facts presented in the film, which aired on cable and satellite channels and has garnered media attention in Germany, are complete fabrications. For example, conference officials cite the allegation that 60 percent of the survivor claims filed to its Hardship Fund are denied. The conference said 319,000 claims were approved out of 433,000 that were submitted, a 74% acceptance rate. The officials also said the German government set the criteria for disbursing benefits, and the conference released funds to individual survivors when they were approved. Since the conference received only funds for approved survivors, it had no financial motive to deny survivor claims, the officials said. Nevertheless, Vilnai-Federbush said the allegations in the film were only the beginning. "By the time the court case is over, everyone will know that our movie was soft on them. We're waiting to file the defense brief, which will include thousands of unanswered questions that the conference will finally have to respond to." When the film was first screened in Israel, Meroz told the Post that the facts presented in it were "correct, and were checked by our investigators and lawyers 10,000 times." According to attorney Ori Keidar, who represents the conference in the lawsuit, "in a libel case, if you use the defense of 'I have been truthful' and you're found to have lied, it makes the crime more severe. If they defend themselves by saying these lies are true, and the court finds that they haven't proven they are true, they'll end up paying more in the final judgment." In the suit, the conference is demanding NIS 4 million "that will be used in its entirety for the welfare of survivors in Israel," and a public apology. "The conference has been damaged in two ways by this film," said Keidar. "The organization's good name has been hurt. This is a respectable organization that has worked for the Jewish people for 60 years. [Meroz and Vilnai-Federbush] have turned us into some kind of mafia." Second, while survivors live longer than expected and incur higher health care costs than were previously budgeted, the conference's negotiating position with the German government is weakened when it asks for more funds. "This will directly affect the well-being of survivors in coming years," Keidar said. "We estimate that in 2020, long after all the Claims Conference money will be depleted, the level of need will still be at 58% of what it is today." Vilnai-Federbush is confident her film will have made a difference for the better. "We will continue this battle," she vowed, "in the hope that many of the survivors will still be alive at the end of the court case to see our victory in their name."

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