NEW YORK, Sept. 16 (JTA) – Another storm has developed between Jewish organizations and the Swiss government. The brouhaha erupted after 12 officials of the World Jewish Restitution Organization were absent from meetings scheduled for Monday in Bern. Jewish leaders gave advance notice last week that they would be unable to attend the meetings, but the Swiss government, joined by the Swiss media, lashed out at the absences. The seven-member executive board of the Swiss Holocaust Memorial Fund, as well as the fund’s 18-member advisory council, had been slated to meet in the Swiss capital to approve the distribution of 15 million Swiss francs – some $10.4 million at current exchange rates – to Holocaust survivors. The fund’s officers were also planning to approve the distribution of 2 million Swiss francs – about $1.4 million – to non-Jewish Holocaust survivors, including gays, Catholics and Gypsies. But no action was taken after the three Jewish members of the board and the nine members of the council did not attend the meetings. Rolf Bloch, the president of the Swiss Jewish community who also chairs the executive board, said two of the board members were absent because of illness. The remaining absences, he added, were not the result of “any controversy with Switzerland.” Indeed, one source familiar with the workings of the WJRO said some of the absences were due to differences among Jewish leaders over how some of the funds would be allocated. The Swiss government attacked the absences, saying they would cause a delay in the distribution of payments. “These absences defy comprehension since the date for today’s meeting was set by mutual agreement,” the Swiss Federal Council, the nation’s Cabinet, said in a statement issued Monday. “As a result, necessary help to thousands of elderly victims in need will unfortunately be further delayed.” The Federal Council called on the WJRO to present its proposals by Sept. 25. Swiss newspapers pounced on the absences in their Tuesday editions, with one questioning the seriousness of Jewish leaders about helping Holocaust victims. Another newspaper suggested that the Swiss government kick the WJRO out of the fund’s decision-making processes. The WJRO is headed by World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman and includes the Jewish Agency for Israel and other international Jewish groups. The organization has previously locked horns with the Swiss government after spearheading international efforts during the past two years to get the Swiss to confront their wartime past. Switzerland’s three largest banks created the Holocaust Memorial Fund earlier this year amid allegations that the banks hoarded the wealth of Holocaust victims. The fund now stands at about $116 million; additional pledges already made by private companies and the Swiss National Bank would bring the total to some $200 million. At a meeting last week in New York, the WRJO decided to recommend initial payments from the fund of about $1,000 each to Jews living in former Soviet bloc countries – the so-called double victims who suffered under Nazism and Communism and never received reparations from the German government. The payments were supposed to get final approval in Bern this week. The WJRO also decided last week to set up a special commission to investigate what happened to billions of dollars worth of art looted by the Nazis. Ronald Lauder, chairman of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and WJRO treasurer, was appointed to head the effort. WJRO officials said they have evidence that 55,000 works of art stolen by the Nazis in France, many belonging to Jews, were not returned to their rightful owners after the war. Of those pieces, about 14,000 were sold at public auction after the war. (JTA correspondent Daniel Kurtzman in Washington contributed to this report.)
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