Jewish Agency, WJC call for outside intervention in Claims Conference

Sharansky expresses pessimism to 'Post' regarding reforms; says "growing perception that organization is run like closed club."

July 10, 2013 22:19
4 minute read.
Natan Sharansky

Natan Sharansky 311. (photo credit: Reuters)

The Claims Conference must be reformed under the aegis of outside bodies, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder declared on Tuesday evening.

Their comments came at the end of the first day of the Claims Conference’s annual board of directors meeting in New York.

In a statement read at the board meeting that was sent to The Jerusalem Post, Sharansky and Lauder expressed their “great disappointment and dismay” in the “Claims Conference leadership” for failing to disclose to the board of directors the existence of a 2001 letter warning of fraud against the Holocaust restitution organization.

They also decried the lack of disclosure of a subsequent report on the whistle-blower letter conducted by a paralegal employed by then-board member and pro bono legal counsel Julius Berman.

Berman became chairman in 2002.

For nearly two decades, conference employees pilfered $57 million in funds meant as restitution to Holocaust survivors.

Citing an internal probe into the conduct of the senior leadership of the conference that was released on Monday, Sharansky and Lauder said that the “the failure to disclose documents relating to the 2001 letter to the Board was ‘totally unacceptable.’” Sharansky and Lauder asked, “Who, if anyone, decided not to disclose the existence of the 2001 anonymous letter and of the paralegal’s report to the Claims Conference board” in 2010, following the disclosure of the fraud? The final version of the Select Leadership Committee’s report had recommended that Berman appoint a Restructuring and Strategic Planning Committee comprised of members of the board and up to three external lay leaders to make recommendations regarding the “structure, administration, management and governance of the Claims Conference.”

Sharansky and Lauder endorsed this proposal but proposed that “a clear majority of the committee charged with implementing the Select Leadership Committee’s recommendations shall consist of prominent representatives of the Jewish community and the State of Israel independent of the Claims Conference lay and professional leadership.”

The two also recommended that during the current meeting the board should appoint “a Special Committee independent of the Claims Conference officers to seek answers” to several questions posed by the Jewish Agency and WJC regarding the conduct of senior officers of the conference.

Said committee, they proposed, would retain the power to utilize conference ombudsman Shmuel Hollander in preparing its report. Hollander would be “answerable solely to the Special Committee,” whose report would be presented within six months.

Directors who spoke with the Post were divided in their reactions to Sharansky’s plan.

Danny Lamm, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said that the proposal “did not have ECAJ support,” while Stephen Kramer of the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland said that there was “no question” that he was “in favor of this statement.”

The Claims Conference did not respond to a request for comment.

“For far too long there has been a gap between the tireless efforts of the Claims Conference on behalf of the Jewish people and the growing perception that the organization is run like a closed club, with little transparency or accountability in its decisionmaking process,” Sharansky wrote the Post in an email.

“The Select Leadership Committee report presented today to the Board of Directors emphasizes the urgent need to address this problem.

I support the report’s recommendation and propose this opportunity be taken to review the structure and the governance of this organization.”

Speaking to the Post by phone from New York on Wednesday, Sharansky said that it is “unfortunate that there are some who [are] simply try[ing] to ignore this very important report which they themselves ordered.”

Sharansky said that there is a perception of a “big contradiction” between the “very important work” of the conference and “the feeling that the organization is run as a very small closed club” lacking transparency.

The current controversy, he said, has presented the board with an “opportunity to learn from mistakes” and to make the organization “much more acceptable [to] the Jewish world.” Asked if he agreed with critics of the conference who have called for Schneider and Berman to resign, Sharansky said that he was not out for “anybody’s head.”

Regaining the trust of the Jewish people is important, he asserted, calling trust the “main capital of this organization.”

Since the conference is an organization “which is distributing huge sums of money in the name of the Jewish people, it must have the trust of the Jewish people.”

As such, he averred, it is in the interests of the leaders of the conference to make sure that “everybody will feel comfortable” and that moving forward there will be full transparency and “clear lines of governance.”

However, Sharansky seemed downbeat about the chances of substantive reforms being implemented at the conference.

“I didn’t have a feeling that the leadership is going to take this report and take it to the next stage, [which] I think they have to do,” he said. “We can’t ignore the report of our own organization, but there are also people who think that it is very important to... as quickly as possible... go back to business as usual and to keep running this organization with very few people hav[ing] real access to the decision-making process... No doubt that there are enough people who want it to continue like this.”

The board is expected to decide on the acceptance of the recommendations of the SLC report during Wednesday’s deliberations. However, the final decision was not yet made public as this paper went to print.

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