Claims Conference board ‘out of sync with reality’

Critics of Holocaust restitution group say board no longer represents Jewish people in dealings with German government.

June 6, 2013 01:52
4 minute read.
A display showing tattoos at the Holocaust Museum in Wasington, DC

Holocaust tattoos 370. (photo credit: reuters)

The board of the Claims Conference no longer adequately represents the Jewish people in its dealings with the German government, according to critics of the embattled Holocaust restitution group.

Observers of the organized Jewish philanthropic sphere, such as former World Jewish Congress official Isi Leibler and Jerry Lewis, the former vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, have called attention to several organizations represented on the board which they claim no longer have significant constituencies and in some cases are all but defunct, yet which cast votes over the disbursement of millions of dollars in restitution funds.

Leibler is an outspoken critic of the Conference and recently called on chairman Julius Berman to resign.

The Claims Conference was established in 1951 “to secure...a small measure of justice for Jewish victims of Nazi persecution” through “a combination of negotiations, disbursing funds to individuals and organizations, and seeking the return of Jewish property lost during the Holocaust,” according to the organization’s mission statement.

Leibler told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that organizations represented on the board such as the Anglo-Jewish Association and American Jewish Congress are “pale shadows of what they were 60 years ago.”

The American Jewish Congress did not respond to a request for comment.

Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week, recently wrote that the American Jewish Congress had “suspended its activities in the summer of 2010” and that it is “no longer a membership organization.”

According to Rosenblatt, the organization “once had more than a dozen regional chapters; the two remaining ones, in Maryland and St. Louis, operate independently, no longer affiliated with a national body that now consists of a board of directors” which he reported as consisting of less than 20 people.

Speaking with the Post on Monday, Samuel Heilman, an American sociologist who specializes in the Jewish community, said that he did not think “the Congress still exists” and that it had “stopped being all that important long ago.”

Asked if the Claims Conference is representative of the world Jewish community, he replied in the negative, saying that given the significant changes in Jewish demographics over the past 60 years, it was no longer possible for all of the organizations on the board to retain their relevance or to sufficiently reflect the composition of the larger community.

“Keep in mind,” he said, that the “fastest growing segments of the Diaspora Jewish world” are the ultra-Orthodox and “non-affiliated, post-denominational Jews.

“It probably would be a good idea to have a different set-up [in terms of] organizations represented on the Claims Conference,” he said, “but don’t look for that to make a lot of changes in the way things are operating.”

Given the fact that the major players in the organized Jewish scene are “not largely democratic organizations,” he said, making a change would just “replaces one set of insiders for another set of insiders.”

“The way Jewish organizations work isn’t all that representative to begin with,” Heilman said.

“I think here you are right in the general principle that it is always good to have a turnover, and you can’t always assume that the people and the institutions that have been in positions of authority should continue to be,” he said.

“But don’t make the mistake of thinking that by getting a different set of organizations on these boards that you’re going to have that much more democracy or that much more sunlight on what goes on.”

Leibler also complained about what he called “the absence of all the major new organizations that have arisen” since the Conference’s establishment that are not represented on the board, that only the ultra-Orthodox and the Reform Movement are represented, while modern Orthodoxy and the Masorti/Conservative Movement are not, and that Israeli Jewry is not adequately represented in the body either.

“Israel, comprising half of world Jewry, aside from [the] survivor group [Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel], has one organization representing it, the Jewish Agency,” Leibler complained.

“The membership of the board is completely out of sync with the current realities of Jewish life. It still includes organizations which are virtually nonexistent, but retain equal representative status to major global Jewish organizations like the Jewish Agency and World Jewish Congress,” he said.

In an interview with the Post, Jerry Lewis, who was not speaking on behalf of the Board of Deputies, said that the Anglo- Jewish Association does “excellent work” and that “100 years ago it was a major organization.”

However, it is now “not representative of any part of the Anglo-Jewish community,” he said.

“It’s on the periphery. It’s role in the Claims Conference ought to be reconsidered.”

In response, Johnnie Walker, president of the Anglo-Jewish Association, stated that the “AJA’s membership comprises a broad cross-section of the Anglo- Jewish community” but that his organization does “not publish specific information about our membership.”

Walker responded to Lewis’s claims by saying “I cannot pass judgement either way since I have not discussed the matter with Jerry myself and, in any case, would not intervene in the affairs of another communal body.” He did point out, however, that Lewis was “no longer a vice president” of the Board of Deputies, despite his continued affiliation with the group.

The Claims Conference did not respond to a request for comment on the matter, nor did it clarify if there are any procedures for changing the organizational composition of the board.

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