Time for a proper review

The Claims Conference board is seen as a self-perpetuating oligarchy accused of neglecting survivors.

By VIVIAN WINEMAN
July 27, 2013 23:27
4 minute read.
Claims Conference

Claims Conference. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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When attending the Claims Conference, one enters into two parallel universes.

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.

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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.

Mainly, 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.

THERE IS, 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 survivors.



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 up.

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 time.

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.

Possibly 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 time.

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.

The author is president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

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