NEW YORK, Sept. 12 (JTA) — The World Jewish Congress succeeded in raising close to $1 million this week at a black-tie banquet here, which also honored a dozen American and Israeli public officials for their support of the Holocaust restitution process.
But the WJC windfall from the event — which included as honorees President Clinton and his wife, U.S. Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton — seems to have come with a heavy price.
The WJC is now under fire on several fronts, including from many Holocaust survivors, who are clamoring for compensation to subsidize their health-care costs and are offended by the notion of any sort of celebration related to the Holocaust.
Rick Lazio, New York’s Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, was also angered, charging that the WJC was playing politics by inviting Hillary Clinton and not him.
WJC officials, however, were unfazed.
The funds raised will be allotted for Holocaust research, said Elan Steinberg, WJC’s executive director.
And such an event was necessary, he said, because the WJC has not pocketed “one penny” as it spearheaded a four-year battle for Holocaust restitution that has extracted $9 billion from the likes of the Swiss banks and German government and industry.
When asked whether the fund raiser, publicly announced two weeks ago, was worth the ensuing bad press, Steinberg told JTA:
“It’s done no harm to the WJC reputation.
“We honored those public officials who helped us, regardless of their political outlook. I think it’s incumbent upon the Jewish people to say thank you to those who brought about this revolution in moral responsibility and historic memory.”
The blue-ribbon honorees indeed spanned the political spectrum, awarding Republicans and Democrats, Labor and Likud.
In addition to the Clintons, the list included former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), who chaired the U.S. Senate banking committee; Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), who chairs the House banking committee; Stuart Eizenstat, the U.S. deputy treasury secretary and the U.S. point man on Holocaust restitution issues; former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who headed a commission investigating Swiss banks’ handling of Holocaust-era dormant accounts; Lawrence Eagleburger, the former U.S. secretary of state who chairs the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims; New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi; New York Gov. George Pataki; former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, a co- chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization; Chairman of the Knesset Restitution Committee Avraham Hirchson; and Israeli Minister for Diaspora Affairs Michael Melchior, who appeared on behalf of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, the fund-raising event’s honorary chairman.
Among the charges leveled against the WJC is that it has plunged into domestic politics.
In a widely quoted September issue of Commentary magazine, senior editor Gabriel Schoenfeld predicted in his article, “Holocaust Reparations: A Growing Scandal,” that the banquet would be “an exercise in self-congratulation that promises to drag the mass murder of European Jewry into ethnic politics at its crassest.”
Some observers, both inside and outside the event, viewed it as a quid pro quo between the WJC and Hillary Clinton. The star power of her and her husband would fill the $10,000 per table ballroom; in return, her appearance would further boost her status within the Jewish community.
With the U.S. elections less than two months away, Clinton’s support among Jews seems to have soared recently. The latest poll by Zogby International indicates she now holds a 70-23 percent advantage over Lazio.
For his part, Steinberg insists his organization continues to be above the political fray.
“I think there were people who tried to inject politics into the dinner, and I think they were mistaken doing so,” Steinberg said.
A spokeswoman for Clinton’s Senate campaign, Karen Finney, told JTA she understood Monday’s event was a “gala” to which both Clintons were invited, and a fund raiser for the WJC.
In restitution, however, Hillary Clinton’s role is a dubious one, say critics.
Steinberg said her prime achievement was as facilitator — introducing Edgar Bronfman, WJC president and a major Jewish philanthropist, to Bill Clinton, and “ensuring bipartisan and administration support for Holocaust restitution.”
On Tuesday, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz wrote that Bronfman is also “one of the chairmen of the Jewish committee for Hillary Clinton’s election.”
Steinberg said he did not know if that was true, but said: “We do not endorse candidates. Individuals are free American citizens, who in their personal capacity can do as they wish.”
Meanwhile, Lazio’s campaign has noted his role in Holocaust restitution as a member of the U.S. House banking committee, where he introduced a bill that extended the life of a presidential commission investigating what became of Holocaust victim assets that fell into American hands.
Steinberg said the House banking committee chairman, Leach, was honored, but “we did not invite the 45 other members of the committee, though we recognize that Mr. Lazio indeed played a constructive role in the restitution question.”
For some Holocaust survivors, their primary gripe is not that restitution for Nazi plundering may have been drawn into New York politics. Nor do they begrudge the WJC’s need to raise funds.
Rather, many survivors have been up in arms since Steinberg announced recently that a newly created Foundation for the Jewish People — to be made up of the estimated hundreds of millions of dollars in unclaimed restitution funds — would determine spending priorities for the excess cash.
Survivors and their advocates demand that survivors alone should decide how it’s spent, and that it should be allocated entirely for the health care of needy, ailing survivors.
They note that 1,000 or so survivors around the world die each month, some reportedly without adequate health care.
In addition, many survivors were upset that such a lavish fund-raising event was held in relation to the Holocaust.
“It’s so preposterous, because no celebration would be happening if it weren’t for the Holocaust; it’s the equivalent of celebrating during Tisha B’Av, or dancing during Yom Kippur,” said Leon Stabinsky, 66, president of the California Association of Holocaust Child Survivors.
“It’s very disturbing and a sad commentary that there are some people taking advantage of this restitution process for political reasons, financial reasons, whatever.
“It’s no coincidence that more people are writing about the creation of a so-called ‘Holocaust industry,’ ” he said.
Steinberg, however, said the event was not a celebration, but “a tribute and a thank you to those public officials who brought about these settlements.”
Still, Stabinsky’s views were echoed by a handful of elderly survivors who protested Monday night on the edge of Central Park, across the street from the Pierre Hotel, where the fund raiser was held.
However, their concerns were overshadowed by the few dozen other protesters with them behind police barricades.
Many of these seemed to be fringe elements simply there to engage in Hillary-bashing, waving posters that, for example, accused her of supporting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and terrorist groups.
Amid the crowd, a young Jewish man named Gil entertained both protesters and curious onlookers by rapping into a megaphone little ditties he had written, like “WJC, how shameless can you be?” and “One-two-three-four, show Hillary the door. Five-six-seven-eight, kick her out of New York state!”
Gil’s rapping, though, took an ugly turn when he spotted and hectored a middle-aged man in tuxedo and yarmulka speed-walking toward the Pierre: “Hey, tuxedo man! Shame on you! Take off your yami, disgusting Jew!”