It's time to reform the Claims Conference

Should an organization charged with distributing millions to Holocaust survivors stand by a dismissed World Jewish Congress official?

Over the past year, escalating complaints and demands for greater transparency have been directed against the management of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference), the organization responsible for recovering and distributing Jewish assets plundered by the Nazis. Many of the complaints are long-standing and were exposed in 1997 in a series of articles by Netty C. Gross in The Jerusalem Report. The central issue remains the allegation that whereas the Claims Conference does disclose allocations, it lacks transparency regarding the manner in which it allocates funds. Critics insist that it functions more like an old boys club than a representative body, and that its board is merely a rubber stamp endorsing the decisions of a few machers who make decisions among themselves and only consult their key constituents. This is confirmed by the fact that the board never meaningfully challenges allocations submitted by the selection committee. As the vast majority of directors are themselves representatives of organizations benefiting from distributions, they are also disinclined to rock the boat by attempting to reform the structure. That is possibly why the government of Israel and the Jewish Agency - both major beneficiaries of Claims Conference funds - have hitherto failed to demand greater transparency and bring about reforms to the composition of the board, which remains virtually unchanged since it was created in 1951. That it no longer reflects the reality of current Jewish life is exemplified by the fact that virtually extinct organizations such as the Anglo-Jewish Association and the Jewish Labor Committee still retain board status similar to the Jewish Agency. THE MOST passionate complaint against the board is that as a consequence of years of delayed processing and neglect - and despite its being one of the wealthiest foundations in the world - many aged Holocaust survivors in poor health will not live to receive their restitution entitlements. In recent years the efficiency of processing applications has improved, but there are still numerous complaints. Many rank-and-file survivors also insist that their representatives on the board no longer adequately represent their interests. When one thinks about the millions of dollars provided by the Germans for administrative expenses, it is regrettable that an independent ombudsman structure was not established. That would have enabled complaints to be objectively assessed, and survivors could have avoided resorting to American and German courts to resolve their problems. ALLEGATIONS THAT senior executive salaries and expenses are extravagant may be unjustified, but they should nevertheless be open to public scrutiny. Meanwhile, there are valid grounds for questioning fees expended to middlemen, consultants, lawyers and public relations organizations. There are also mounting complaints that the Claims Conference still fails to fully disclose its assets, and that it sold Jewish properties appropriated by the Nazis without providing adequate notice to heirs to register claims. Ugly rumors are circulating concerning the Frankfurt Claims Conference office, which operates a huge real-estate empire and disposes of properties in what critics describe as a shady, non-competitive manner. Recently class action proceedings were instituted in a German court by Gabriele Hammerstein, alleging that the Claims Conference had blocked her claim to her parents' sanatorium. Allegedly, this is merely the tip of the iceberg because the value of assets from East Germany alone may amount to billions of dollars. In addition, murmurings are increasing about plundered Jewish artworks which the Claims Conference is apparently also reluctant to fully disclose. All these issues could be laid to rest if genuine transparency applied. FINALLY THERE is the ongoing debate over whether the Claims Conference has adequately memorialized the German victims of Nazi persecution, whose property still provides millions in restitution funds. This is exemplified by the plaque at Yad Vashem acknowledging - by name - senior directors of the Claims Conference for grants bestowed, rather than emphasizing the actual victims of the Holocaust. A rising disquiet about Claims Conference management has now intensified following the bizarre response by Chairman Julius Berman to calls for Israel Singer to step down from the Claims Conference presidency after the WJC - a constituent organization of the Claims Conference - fired him. Instead of declining to comment prior to consulting his board, Berman responded that "our position for years has been - and remains - that this sounds like an internal fight within the World Jewish Congress, and it would be inappropriate to allow the dispute to come out into the public at the Claim Conference." He added "In my opinion, Singer can continue to function because of who he is and what he represents." Berman does not represent any organization on the Claims Conference board, but is a senior partner in a major law firm, an Orthodox rabbi and a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. After virtually the entire global media - not to mention sundry anti-Semitic Web sites - had been disseminating the lurid WJC scandal, Berman's ex-cathedra announcement that Singer could stay on and negotiate with governments on behalf of the Jewish people is nothing less than astonishing. A New York Jewish Week editorial asked: "Now that Singer has become a liability found to have violated his fiduciary responsibilities to the WJC, can the Claims Conference… allow him to stay on as a leader championing morality and righteousness?" The Jewish Press, a Brooklyn-based Orthodox weekly, queried "whether someone with a serious cloud over his head can continue to function effectively as the lead representative of the Jewish community in an effort to address one of history's most profound moral issues. This, frankly, is a question that should have been asked several years ago, when the attorney-general of the State of New York came to some rather negative conclusions about Mr. Singer's stewardship of WJC finances, although no criminality was found." BERMAN'S surprising response has now raised questions about the moral compass of the Claims Conference leadership. Clearly, an organization acting as trustee for Jewish restitution funds must not only be pristine-pure, its officers cannot even be perceived as being in any way associated with improprieties. Berman's statement of support for Singer should, I would expect, accelerate demands by the government of Israel and leading Jewish organizations to insist on a long-overdue review of the Claims Conference structure. Whatever the outcome, the need to thoroughly restructure in order to enable the Claims Conference to better reflect the reality of today's Jewish life must become a top priority. If the complaints prove unfounded, transparency will at least put an end to false rumors. After the WJC debacle, we must ensure that the vastly more important Claims Conference, whose decisions will have a profound impact on the future of the Jewish people, is managed by a regime of good governance in a totally open manner and fulfills its mandate of serving the interests of survivors and their heirs, as well as enshrining the memory of those who perished during the Holocaust. The writer chairs the Diaspora-Israel relations committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and is a veteran international Jewish leader.