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Jewish groups: Holocaust-era insurance talks taking too long

JERUSALEM, April 25 (JTA) — Four months after the International Conference on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims began seeking a compromise between Jewish organizations and European insurers for paying claims dating back to the WWII, Jewish groups are getting restless. The World Jewish Congress and Israeli delegates to the conference are warning that the commission will face a crisis if progress is not made in negotiations with European insurance companies when all the delegates meet next week in London. “If we don’t have a breakthrough, the commission will be in trouble,” said Bobby Brown, a conference delegate who serves as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s adviser on Diaspora affairs. “If we do not have names to publish or a claims procedure by June, and the auditing aspects are not in place to the agreement of everyone, we will all have to reconsider our positions.” The commission was created last year to solve the problem of insurance policies dating back to the Holocaust that were never paid to policyholders or their heirs. The insurers, faced with lawsuits totaling billions of dollars, agreed to participate in the commission as a means for settling those claims. Based on its research into the unpaid policies, the WJC has put their value at between $2 billion and $2.5 billion in today’s currency — 10 times their value in postwar dollars. Commission participants include Jewish organizations, the Israeli government, U.S. and European insurance commissioners and five companies who insured Holocaust victims — Assicurazioni Generali of Italy; Germany’s leading insurer, Allianz Holding; France’s AXA Group; and the Winterthur and Zurich insurance firms in Switzerland. Generali officials responded to the warning by saying they are committed to finding a compromise formula. The Israeli government is playing a prominent role in the insurance talks, and in June the commission will meet in Jerusalem. Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said last Friday it is time to achieve tangible results. “Important progress has been made in establishing this commission and adopting some critical guidelines,” he said. “But now we are faced with the rather obvious challenge of making it concrete to those who it most affects — the claimants.” Much of the onus will fall on Lawrence Eagleburger, a former U.S. secretary of state serving as the commission’s chairman, who has been praised by all sides for his determination to forge a compromise. In a telephone interview with JTA, Eagleburger rejected accusations that the commission has been moving too slowly. “We haven’t moved as fast as I know an aging population should expect,” he said, referring to Holocaust survivors and their heirs. “Having said all of that, this commission has been effectively in business for [only] four months.” Should a showdown between Jewish organizations and insurance companies emerge, said Eagleburger, the process for claimants would likely be drawn out much longer. “But the fundamental point is, if we do not start paying some claims soon, I myself will be more than a little bit critical,” he said. “I hope we can at least start payment of claims shortly after the May meeting.” For this to happen, several sticking points must be overcome, including how to deal with companies who say their assets were nationalized after World War II and maintain that they are therefore not liable to claimants, how to valuate dormant insurance policies and how to publish lists of policyholders. The gulf is particularly wide on the issue of valuating policies. Insurance groups insist valuations be based on a policy’s original currency, many of which are virtually worthless today. Jewish groups want to convert policies into a stable currency and apply a compound rate of interest. Meanwhile, JTA has learned that the $12 million Israel-based fund that Generali established last year is valuing policies in line with the Jewish groups’ position. “We are assessing how much the policy was worth then in dollars, and then applying historical indicators of the U.S. government,” said Meir Lantzman, general manager of the Generali fund. “On average, it comes out to about 10 times the original value.” But Kenneth Bialkin, a partner at a New York law firm who was recently appointed to represent Generali on the commission, insists this is not a precedent, since the fund operates independently of the commission. The appointment of Bialkin, a veteran Jewish lay leader who served as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and director of the Anti-Defamation league, has sparked some controversy. In the context of the commission, he may find himself pitted against representatives of major Jewish organizations and the Israeli government. “If he wants to be a force for finding solutions, he certainly comes with the skills and background to do it,” said one commission delegate, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But if he comes to ‘deliver the Jews,’ he will get beaten up. Let’s not forget — he is on the payroll of Generali. His job is to make this thing go away.” Yet some commission members — including Eagleburger — believe Bialkin could be a positive force for compromise. Bialkin views his presence on the commission in the same way. “As a Jew and a person concerned with Holocaust issues, I believe our community is not benefitting from the acrimony of these debates. Compromise is the only thing that will benefit all sides,” Bialkin told JTA. “We need to bring this to an end.”