Claims Conference, MKs spar over funds distribution

avital mk 298 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
avital mk 298 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Knesset members clashed with representatives of the Claims Conference Tuesday as the Knesset's Immigration and Absorption Committee debated how to best distribute funds to Holocaust survivors. The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, or Claims Conference, represents world Jewry in negotiating for compensation for Holocaust survivors and their heirs. The organization, which in 1951 was given a mandate to negotiate with Germany on behalf of all survivors, holds a virtual monopoly on all funds secured from that country, said MKs, who contested the way in which the conference distributes its funds. "This organization has billions of dollars in funds and each year they get several million more which they distribute according to their own internal system," said MK Colette Avital, a former head of the Knesset Committee for Holocaust Reparations. "All we are asking for is greater transparency in how the decisions are made." During the meeting, Russian MKs Marina Solodkin (Kadima) and Sofa Landver (Israel Beiteinu) presented a litany of complaints to the organization. "I have devoted some time now to trying to understand your system of distributing funds and I am more confused than when I started," said Landver. The MKs issued a threefold complaint. First, they charged that the organization downsized the number of Holocaust survivors living in Israel and delivered less funds proportionally to Israeli survivors than those living in other countries. Second, they said that the conference had repeatedly refused their request to include more Israeli members on their board of directors. Third, they said that the heads of the Claims Conference were often overpaid, and used Holocaust funds for lavish company excursions. Reuven Merhav, Director of the Claims Conference Israeli branch, presented the committee with a report on the distribution of funds last year. Merhav said that in 2006, the claims conference gave $238 million to Holocaust survivors in Israel. From that, $165 million were paid directly into the bank accounts of Holocaust survivors and the rest went to social organizations. According to Merhav, the figure amounts to between 50-55 percent of the Claims Conference's total sum paid to Holocaust survivors world-wide. "In addition to these funds, we have more building projects and other supplementary activity in Israel than in any other country," said Merhav. "We give great consideration to Israel." Immigration Committee Chairman Michael Nudelman, however, feels that the board's composition, which has not changed much since it was created in 1951, does not reflect the needs of Israel's Holocaust survivors. While Merhav said that Claims Conference estimates that 40% of Holocaust survivors live in Israel, Nudelman said that the figure is much closer to 60%. In addition, of the boards 58 members, only eight represent organizations within Israel. "Six or seven years ago the composition of the board was changed to include two more Israeli organizations," said Merhav. "We are constantly open to suggestions, but the entire board must approve an organization before it is added." Getting approval is made even more complicated as the entire board only meets once a year in New York. "We have turned to the board on several occasions to try to secure funds for groups, like the Russian children of survivors. We were ignored each time and now the children's group is suing the Claims Conference in court," said Solodkin. Merhav said that the amount of free money that the board can distribute each year totals approximately $1 billion, of which $300 million is dedicated to private claims from Holocaust survivors. Other funds that the organization distributes are simply redirected from Germany, which slates a certain amount each year to be paid to survivors. According to Avital, more than $200 million of the $238 million given to Israel was simply redirected from Germany. Merhav did not confirm the exact number but said that it was approximately correct. "The biggest problem here is in the transparency of who is getting what money," said Avital. "They control the whole issue and it is very difficult to get changes made." Only last month, Minister Rafi Eitan (Gil Pensioners) signed a new charter demanding changes to the Claims Conference. Since then, Merhav said that he and Eitan talk on a weekly basis and will present proposals to the conference based on their discussions. One of the issues that the Knesset committee did not touch on, but was voiced by Holocaust survivors attending the committee, was the salaries of employees of the Claims Conference. According to US Internal Revenue Service reports from 2006, there are 100 employees of the Claims Conference who earn salaries totaling $6.9 million.