Jewish Groups Want Bush to Prioritize Restitution Issue

Some Jewish leaders want the Bush administration to appoint a higher-profile representative to address Holocaust restitution issues, particularly outstanding claims against Holocaust-era insurers.

“That’s the way the administration will signal” their involvement, said Israel Singer, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress and vice president of the Claims Conference. “That’s the way it should be done.”

The comments come as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to Holocaust restitution this week in the administration’s first public statement on the issue.

“Our government will continue to work for the interests of Holocaust victims and against anti-Semitism and racism,” Armitage said. “Of overriding importance, the U.S. government will continue to promote Holocaust education, remembrance and research.”

Armitage made his comments at a Claims Conference meeting in Washington on Wednesday.

In his speech, Armitage also praised the Claims Conference, which is marking its 50th anniversary this week, calling it “an essential partner” in Holocaust restitution.

The Claims Conference represents world Jewry in negotiations on compensation and restitution for victims of Nazi persecution and their heirs.

Armitage’s presence at the meeting was a “powerful statement,” but a higher-profile appointment on Holocaust restitution issues would be “encouraging,” said Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference.

But James Bindenagel, the Bush administration’s special envoy on Holocaust issues, said a high-profile appointment would not signal any additional U.S. involvement.

“It’s not appropriate,” he told JTA.

A high-profile appointee, like the Clinton administration’s Stuart Eizenstat, was necessary when the United States was negotiating agreements with Switzerland, Germany, Austria and France, Bindenagel said. Now that the agreements are being implemented, however, the same type of involvement is not required, he said.

The next issue in the restitution process is to pressure German insurance companies to pay out funds to Holocaust survivors.

Some of this insurance money should come from a $5 billion fund set up earlier this year mainly to pay slave and forced laborers — but most of it will come from an international commission established by insurance companies to pay policies taken out during the Holocaust era, said Jewish leaders.

Lawrence Eagleburger, chairman of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, spoke to the Conference earlier in the week and accused the German insurer Allianz of failing to make good on its commitments to the commission.

“It’s unacceptable that it’s business as usual,” Singer said.

At their meeting, the Claims Conference’s board of directors also decided to develop a long-term plan to ensure critical home care and other related needs of elderly Nazi victims. The Conference currently spends $21 million annually to fund home care for the neediest cases.

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