Holocaust restitution deal still elusive

NEW YORK, July 8 (JTA) — The North American Jewish federation system is hearing a debate over whether to spend Holocaust restitution on education or on poor survivors, but a resolution seems as distant as ever. On Monday, the Claims Conference — the main organization in charge of Holocaust reparations spending — and an association of groups called the Holocaust Survivors Foundation took their conflicting views to the United Jewish Communities, the federation system´s umbrella organization. Both sides stated their claims at UJC´s New York headquarters. "I think people learned a lot about people´s differences of opinions," said Rabbi Israel Singer, the Claims Conference president. Federation officials lauded the session as a first step in their own deliberations on the controversy. Lorraine Blass, a senior UJC planner who is heading the organization´s Holocaust Survivors Services Committee, called the meeting "the beginning of a process." "The committee will continue its deliberations about a very complex set of issues," she said. At issue is a Claims Conference policy, dating to 1994, to spend 20 percent of $430 million from the sale of recovered but unclaimed East German Jewish property on Holocaust education, documentation and research. The rest of the money is spent on survivors. Since its founding in 1951, the Claims Conference has spent a portion of unclaimed reparations money on educational ventures such as the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The 1994 policy formalized such moves. However, in recent years calls have increased for all of the money to go directly to ailing and financially needy survivors. According to a 2002 report by the Association of Jewish Family and Children´s Agencies, about 40 percent of the 127,000 to 145,000 survivors in the United States lack enough money to pay for home and medical care. Some $30 million is needed annually to help them, the report estimated. Calls to boost survivor aid intensified after Singer wrote an essay last year calling for a new Jewish organization to use the unspent portion of the $11 billion in overall Holocaust restitution on "the future needs of the Jewish people" in areas such as education, to "rebuild the Jewish soul and spirit." Meanwhile, the Holocaust Survivors Foundation lobbied federation leaders, and the Claims Conference met with survivors and federation officials around North America. Some federation leaders began calling for the Claims Conference to change its spending priorities. That sparked a similar resolution earlier this year by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the UJC´s decision to appoint the committee that oversaw this week´s meeting. Others, however, say the 80-20 split is equitable. Ultimately the central question is not simply about spending, but "should that period of time be forgotten?" asked Eli Zborowski, a survivor who is a top fund-raiser for the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem and who favors supporting Holocaust education projects. Survivor needs "should be addressed by the community at large," and the Claims Conference alone shouldn´t be blamed for their situation, Zborowski said. At stake is not only the Claims Conference spending but the budgets of federations themselves: Many federations already aid survivors directly or through local social service agencies, which the Claims Conference also assists. Aside from its member federations´ budgets, the UJC has no authority over Claims Conference policy. Changes can be made only by the Claims Conference´s board of directors, which represents 24 Jewish organizations and holds its annual meeting July 22-23. UJC officials met in a closed executive session after Monday´s meeting. "We are going to continue our discussions and decide what, if any, communications we will give to the Claims Conference," Blass said. Claims Conference spokeswoman Hillary Kessler-Godin characterized the session as "an introduction" to the debate for the UJC. She would not say whether the UJC meeting ultimately would impact Claims Conference spending. "There are many opinions on this subject within the Jewish community and among survivors, and they´ll all be taken into account at the board meeting," she said. Judging from comments after the meeting by Holocaust Survivors Foundation members, Claims Conference officials and federation officials, it seems few people are budging from their positions. Julius Berman, chairman of the Claims Conference, said help for needy survivors worldwide should come not just from the Claims Conference, but from the Swiss banks settlement, the Holocaust-era insurance company settlement and the federations themselves. "In that effort, it may be necessary for the federation system to re- analyze what its priorities are," Berman said. Though the Holocaust Survivors Foundation and others say $30 million would be enough to help survivors domestically, Berman said, U.S. survivors represent only 10 percent of the number worldwide. "That means you need $300 million" annually for needy survivors in places such as the former Soviet Union, where many are "living in hovels," he added. Among those who argued Monday for aiding U.S. survivors was Mark Talisman, who as chief aide to Rep. Charles Vanik (D-Ohio) wrote the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which tied Soviet trade privileges to Russian Jews´ right to emigrate freely. "Everyone wants to see" Holocaust education "goals met, but it´s very hard in the face of suffering and death — and that´s not being melodramatic," he said. If the Claims Conference and the authorities overseeing funds from the Swiss banks and Holocaust-era insurance cases could come up with money for survivors, the Claims Conference "wouldn´t need to change their formula much," Talisman said.

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