Metro views: If it ain’t broke, fix it

Claims Conference’s critics are proclaiming that if the agency had been ‘reformed’ the fraud recently uncovered would never have happened.

The system works. Let’s fix it. That seems to be the cockamamie logic behind some demands to reform the Claims Conference, the agency that for nearly 60 years has negotiated with Germany for compensation for Jewish victims of Nazi persecution.
Some “Nazi victims” had orchestrated a sophisticated scam to acquire German pensions intended for Holocaust survivors. The German pensions are administered by the Claims Conference. Because it has systems in place to detect fraud, the conference detected this one. As soon as it did – last fall at its New York office – the agency alerted US and German officials, suspended activity on the funds and fired several staff members who appeared to be involved in the swindle.
It’s especially heinous to steal money intended for Holocaust survivors. Some of the Claims Conference’s critics are loudly and relentlessly proclaiming that if the agency had been “reformed” – if it gave more money to Holocaust survivors – this would never have happened.
IF YOU are scratching your head, wondering how this could make sense, well, it doesn’t. The existing system worked. The Claims Conference identified a scam. Its investigation thus far has found that some 202 pensions paid from the German funds – estimated at $7 million – appear to have been obtained fraudulently. To put this in perspective, the conference administers monthly pensions to more than 106,000 people in 78 countries. It also is heavily audited, both internally and by the German government.
Yet since the Claims Conference found and reported the fraud, it has been open season on the agency.
Writing in The Jerusalem Post and on the Jewish Week Web site, Isi Leibler, a former Australian Jewish leader now living in Jerusalem, is the primary critic. He has raised multiple grievances about the agency, referring to phantom “conflicts of interests” among board members, complaining about past conference allocations and suggesting that the agency needs to ensure that survivors and heirs are treated with respect – as if they were not already represented on the Claims Conference board.
Leibler and others are free, of course, to criticize. But it behooves these critics to base their grievances on fact, not whimsy or wishful thinking. For example, Leibler says that the disclosure of fraud “has revived former concerns and exposed new problems relating to the management of this important Jewish organization.”
On the contrary, the disclosure proves that the internal auditing system works, and that the management reported the scam to law enforcement.
What the fraud has done, however, is give Leibler and other critics a news hook for old gripes. This is a problem. Erroneous allegations have serious consequences for the survivors Leibler professes to care about. They traumatize survivors by leading them to believe they are being cheated. And unfounded criticism could undermine German confidence in the Claims Conference, which could impair negotiations for additional funds. To its credit, the conference has not stopped seeking compensation for Nazi victims from the moment German chancellor Konrad Adenauer publicly announced his willingness to negotiate.
IT WAS 59 years ago, in a speech in the Bundestag on the eve of Rosh Hashana in 1951, that Adenauer acknowledged Germany’s “solemn obligation to redress the wrongs inflicted on the Jewish people and to make such reparations as would enable the survivors to rebuild their lives in Israel and elsewhere in freedom and security.”
He invited the State of Israel and representatives of “Jewry” to negotiate for material redress. Israel’s partner, representing Jewry, was the Claims Conference, which over the decades has secured billions of dollars from Germany and Austria for Jewish Nazi victims.
Is the money enough? No one would suggest that survivors have been adequately compensated for the unspeakable losses they suffered. But nor should we overlook the fact that the Claims Conference, far from being the villainous foe of Holocaust survivors, has been their greatest advocate.
Leibler is correct on one essential point: “The biggest scandal is the ongoing plight of the remaining elderly survivors living under wretched conditions.”
Before leaping to any conclusions about responsibility, it would be wise to look at the conference’s very public financial records. They show that the money will run out in the next few years. After all these years of depending on the Claims Conference to provide for survivors, this is the frightening part.
“The biggest scandal is the ongoing plight of the remaining elderly survivors living under wretched conditions.” Yes – and Leibler should be screaming this – not at the Claims Conference, but from the rooftops of the Knesset and every Jewish federation office the world over. For too long, the Jewish community has relied on Germany and the Claims Conference to care for survivors, without regard to their fate or future when the money runs out.
The State of Israel and the Jewish community have been derelict in providing for impoverished survivors.
Why don’t Jews – who have financed scores of Holocaust museums, memorials and monuments – seem to care for the needy Nazi victims among us? As I have written before, as a community, we faithfully honor the memory of the Holocaust victims, but seem indifferent to the welfare of those who survived it.
“It is obscene that elderly survivors are denied the opportunity of living out their few remaining years in dignity,” Leibler has written. I agree. So, I am sure, do the members of the board of the Claims Conference.
Everyone knew the well would run dry one day.
That day is coming. If we want Nazi victims to live in dignity, it is time for all of us to take out our checkbooks.