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A change in course at Claims Conference?

WASHINGTON, March 4 (JTA) — A change in leadership at the Claims Conference is unlikely to change the way Holocaust restitution funds are used and distributed. Such is the view of the four individuals nominated to take over the leadership of the organization that, for the past 50 years, has been primarily responsible for $50 billion in reparations to more than 500,000 Holocaust survivors. Rabbi Israel Singer, the former secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, has been nominated as the new president of the Claims Conference. Singer would replace Rabbi Israel Miller, who recently announced his intention to step down for health reasons. But in an apparent effort to resolve a power struggle over who would succeed Miller, a deal was worked out to create four leadership positions instead of one. The other nominees are Julius Berman as chairman, Moshe Sanbar as chairman of the executive and Roman Kent as treasurer. But the Jewish Agency for Israel, which had hoped for a greater role in deciding how to distribute what could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars in outstanding reparations, complained that it was shut out of the nominating process and that the new leadership would not properly represent Israeli interests. It has vowed to fight the nominations and involve Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The conference board is scheduled to vote on the nominees April 11. The recent creation of several compensation and restitution funds around the world means the conference will be administering compensation programs and distributing payments for the next few years. The conference disburses funds to individuals and organizations and works to regain Jewish property lost during the Holocaust. Using money from the sale of unclaimed Jewish property in the former East Germany, it gives grants to organizations to help needy survivors and Holocaust education projects. Many people are looking for clues as to how funds will be distributed to survivors and education projects, though so far it seems there won´t be big changes. The direction of the conference will not be "altered in any substantial fashion under the new administration," said Berman, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and currently chairman of the board of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University. The amount of funds remaining to be allocated ultimately could reach hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on how much is earned from the sale of property in the former East Germany. A debate has raged in recent years over the use of restitution funds, and whether there should be a balance among the needs of survivors, Holocaust education and the potential help the money could bring for Jewish education and identity-building in the Diaspora. Sanbar, currently chairman of the Center of Organizations for Holocaust Survivors in Israel, said the money has to go to Holocaust-related purposes and should not be used for anything else — even for a "good Jewish purpose." Berman said that the conference´s primary goal remains "to aid survivors, especially in the last years of their lives." Singer, who was the conference´s vice president and its lead negotiator in many restitution settlements, recently told JTA: "I negotiated the settlements, I recovered it, and let me tell you, as long as there´s a Holocaust survivor in need, they are the primary beneficiaries." Although Singer did not return phone calls for this story, he did in a recent interview tell JTA that if money is left over, "it should be used to revitalize and create a renaissance for the Jewish people." Berman said it is critical that geographic areas or organizational affiliation not divide the conference. Representatives of the Jewish Agency — which helped found the Claims Conference in 1951 — were upset that they weren´t included in the nominating process. "They left Israel out of the picture," said Chaim Chesler, the Jewish Agency´s treasurer. "It´s unheard of." Chesler said the nominees would not properly represent Israeli interests. Although Sanbar is Israeli, he said, he will leave his position with the Israeli survivors´ group when he joins the conference leadership. Chesler and Sallai Meridor, the agency´s chairman, met with Miller and tried to persuade him to postpone the nominations and change the nominating committee´s structure. But Miller declined. Both Chesler and Meridor were offered the roles of vice president, but Chesler said that it was just a title with no role. The Jewish Agency wants to see Israel more involved in the distribution of funds, Chesler said. In a letter to the conference, Chesler and Meridor said Israel was "the true heir of all unclaimed assets from the Holocaust." Kent, also the chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, wrote back that all unclaimed assets from the Holocaust belong "first and foremost" to survivors. He also chided the Jewish Agency for not properly assisting survivors in the past. A source close to the issue said the agency is in severe financial straits and is trying to get control of the conference in order to use the restitution funds to pay for its programs. Chesler denied the charge, saying the agency simply wants to be a part of the decision-making process for distributing funds. Conference officials say projects in Israel have received priority, given the large number of Holocaust survivors who live there. But the agency appears willing to fight the new leadership. Chesler said it has "many moves" left and is in close cooperation with the Israeli Prime Minister´s Office. The Claims Conference will be in charge of hundreds of millions of dollars from the sale of heirless or communal property in the former East Germany. So far, the conference has sold off some 50 to 60 percent of the assets, and has allocated over $400 million — primarily from such sales — since 1995. The conference decided that 80 percent of the revenue should go to institutions and agencies that care for needy Holocaust survivors, such as home nursing care, nursing homes and psychiatric hospital wards. The remaining 20 percent would go toward Holocaust research, education and documentation. Among the recipients of Claims Conference funding have been the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The conference plans to keep the same 80/20 ratio when it sells the remainder of heirless East German properties, according to Hillary Kessler- Godin, the conference´s spokeswoman. There also could be hundreds of millions of dollars from unpaid insurance policies from various European companies, and perhaps tens of millions of dollars from a Swiss government humanitarian fund. Just what role the conference will play in disbursal of those funds remains unclear.