Claims Conference seeks to block documentary

New film claims withholding of funds from sick Holocaust survivors.

Holocaust survive 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Holocaust survive 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
A new documentary, set to be screened on TV here on Wednesday on YES and Reshet, is making waves in the Jewish organizational world with a ferocious critique of one of the most important Jewish institutions. The film is a follow-up to last year's "Musar Hashilumim" ("The Morality of Payments") by journalists Guy Meroz and Orli Vilnai-Federbush, and it targets the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, better known as the Claims Conference. The new film, "The Morality of Payments - the Battle Continues," accuses the conference's leadership of "self-dealing," the practice of misusing one's public position to benefit one's private self. It further accuses the conference of withholding funds from elderly, sick Holocaust survivors in order to ensure its own existence after those survivors have passed away. The Claims Conference, for its part, is rejecting many of the film's accusations and urging that it not be shown. The documentary is "warped, presenting incorrectly and dishonestly the activities of the Claims Conference," reads a letter from the Tel Aviv law office M. Seligman & Co., which represents the conference, to the Israeli companies that produced the film, Ananey Tikshoret and Shamayim Hafakot, and to the channels that will be screening it. The letter, which demands the documentary not be broadcast, claims: "Instead of producing a movie that reflects the conference's activities, criticizes where criticism is deserved while presenting a complete and fair picture, the makers of the movie chose to give a false presentation, regardless of the consequences." As of Monday night, however, YES was adamant that the documentary would be screened as scheduled. Many of the film's accusations have been raised before. Among them is the charge that the conference pays overly high salaries to a small group of senior staff, with the conference's director earning over $400,000 after benefits. The conference has countered in the past that an organization that handles hundreds of millions of dollars each year from Germany and Austria for hundreds of thousands of survivors worldwide, with the careful management and complex negotiations that these tasks entail, should be expected to pay its top executive a competitive salary for such complex work, and that this salary is reasonable in comparison to those paid to other Jewish executives of similar rank. Another familiar claim included in the new documentary is that while many thousands of survivors live out their last days in poverty, the conference spends many millions of dollars on programs dealing with Holocaust education and commemoration, which the film claims is done to increase the conference's influence among other Jewish organizations that receive the funds. Indeed, the conference's own treasurer Roman Kent, himself a survivor who works at the conference without pay, told England's Jewish Chronicle in 2006 that "survivors are suffering. Our only priority should be the survivors, and everything else should be secondary. We are spending money for thousands of projects, but the health of the survivors can't wait. They are dying daily. I'm not saying that these are bad programs, but they can wait - or else they should be the responsibility of the world Jewish community, not the Claims Conference." The documentary also revives the criticism that the board of the conference does not properly represent the larger Jewish communities, particularly Israel, in setting policy for distributing funds. Alongside these critiques, the movie raises new ones, and the conference is seeking to call them into question, flatly rejecting many of the criticisms. Meroz countered that the facts presented in the movie are "correct, and were checked by our investigators and lawyers 10,000 times. Anyone who thinks otherwise can sue us." According to the Claims Conference, while the film shows Pensioners Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan ostensibly begging the conference board by video conference for more survivor funds, Eitan is actually meeting on January 31, 2008, with a different, Israel-based group called the World Jewish Restitution Organization, and is seeking to fund it rather than soliciting funds. (The Jerusalem Post has confirmed this.) Meroz responded that Eitan has himself described the conference pejoratively as "a gang." He noted that the Claims Conference is itself "a member of the WJRO, and the purpose of that scene was to show how the conference deals with the Israeli government." The documentary also claims that 60 percent of the survivor claims filed to the Hardship Fund of the Claims Conference are denied, and only 40% approved. According to conference records, however, 319,000 claims were approved out of 433,000 that were submitted, an approval rate of some 74%. The conference notes that the criteria for disbursing survivors' benefits are set by the German government, not the conference, and funds are granted by Germany as more survivors are approved. So the conference says it has no financial motive, contrary to the film's claims, to deny survivor benefit claims. The documentary cites an oft-quoted statistic alleging the conference has over $1 billion in liquid assets which it is refusing to disburse to survivors. This figure is incorrect according to conference officials, and is also rejected by Jewish Agency Treasurer Hagai Merom, who sits on the conference board representing the agency, and by the accounting firm Ernst & Young, which audited the organization's finances up to the end of 2006. The $1b. does not relate to compensation payments to survivors, they say. All direct compensation payments to survivors, which account for the vast majority of the $67b. the conference has distributed since 1951, are made automatically without conference control over the funds. Rather, the $1b. figure relates to properties in East Germany the conference inherited because the rightful heirs failed to come forward to the German government by the end of December 1992, the deadline established by the German government for property restitution claims. At the time, the conference submitted claims for some 120,000 properties, fearing that the failure of individual descendants to submit claims in time would mean the irrevocable loss of properties which had been stolen from the Jewish community by the Nazis and the German communists after them. Since 1993, some 85,000 of these claims have been examined in German courts, and 11,000 were found to be Jewish property, with the conference receiving the property or compensation for it. These properties were then turned over for auction, and the conference holds the funds from these auctions. The conference then used the money to establish a "goodwill fund" that extended the restitution claim deadline to March 2004, offering heirs of first relation, including grandchildren, 80% of the value of the property. Thousands of claims were received, and of the $328 million of this money possessed by the conference at the end of 2006, according to the Ernst & Young audit, $193 million was distributed in 2007 alone. According to conference officials, the remaining 20% of the value which does not go to the heirs is paid to the lawyers, assessors and others involved in pursuing and managing the funds, and to welfare services for survivors. Another $381m. are funds already slated for currently-running survivor welfare services and education and commemoration programs. They are unspent because the programs are multi-year, and funds are distributed as the programs progress, the conference says. A final $318m. are the real liquid assets, the reserve fund, which is being given out at a rate of about one-third each year, and is expected to be depleted by the end of 2009, according to conference officials. It is these funds which the conference is refusing to release in one payment, saying that no one would care for the survivors the following year, when the depleted conference funds would no longer be forthcoming. At a screening of the documentary on Sunday evening in Tel Aviv, Meroz announced it had already been requested for broadcast by dozens of European media outlets. According to Yona Wiesenthal, deputy director of content for YES, "the movie will be shown, without question. I'm proud that YES took this on itself and is partner to this important project. This is personal: I have the honor of being a member of the Wiesenthal family. I'm proud that we're not afraid to raise this flag, and [are] taking it forward. I know and am certain that a public noise will make a change." He added: "Last year's movie changed public opinion and improved the situation of the survivors. It's not about whether everything is said properly or politely. The essence is that we all have a joint goal to let survivors live out the rest of their lives in dignity." Asked about the Claims Conference's assertions of errors in the film, regarding the presentation of the WJRO meeting and the question of the $1b., for instance, Wiesenthal said he could not comment on any issue that was contained in the conference lawyer's letter. "If the Claims Conference comes to sue YES, we'll deal with the specific concerns of the conference, but I won't discuss them through the media," he said. According to Reuven Merhav, chairman of the executive of the Claims Conference, the movie's accusations harm ongoing negotiations with European governments for more funds for survivors, who have lived longer and at more expense than was expected when previous agreements were drawn up. He said the accusations also affected the image of Israel and the Jewish world internationally. "It bothers me at the level of Israel's public face, my public face and those of all the good people who give their time without pay to help survivors," he said. One of the funders of the movie, after an early viewing last week, was "so appalled" that he has demanded, through his lawyer, to recover his contribution. Businessman Noam Lanir wants all connection between him and the movie severed, according to a letter sent from the law firm representing Lanir, Ron Gazit, Rotenberg & Co., and obtained by the Post. "My client was deeply shocked by the content of the movie, and, among other elements, from the aggressiveness, the one-sidedness and the inappropriate animations," among other issues, the letter states. The movie is "slanted, not neutral, and brutal, and the presentation of the facts could harm aid given from Germany to Holocaust survivors, severely harming the survivors living among us." Meroz said he was confident Lanir and other detractors would change their minds. "Noam Lanir is a respectable man, and I think he'll see the results this movie will bring and will understand its importance," Meroz told the Post.