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After Debate, Claims Conference Votes to Continue Education Funding

The main Holocaust reparations organization is standing fast in its policy of using some restitution money to pay for Holocaust education, despite calls to spend all of the funds on needy survivors.

The 57-member board of directors of the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany voted unanimously Tuesday to continue spending 20 percent from the sale of unclaimed East German Jewish properties on Holocaust education, documentation and research.

The other 80 percent of East German assets goes to survivors and their heirs.

“We have a legacy and the legacy is from the dead,” said Ben Helfgott, a Claims Conference board member and chairman of the ’45 Aid Society, a group of survivors who were brought to England as children in 1945.

“The legacy they left us is not to forget,” he told JTA. “Holocaust education is a very important part of it, and if you don’t support it, it ends.”

But David Schaecter, president of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation, which had led the fight to change the spending, blasted the decision.

“Isn’t it a shame that it comes at the expense of desperate, needy and dying survivors?” he asked. “We don’t know how the Jewish world can accept it, and how the Jewish world thinks that’s a fair way to treat survivors.”

In the past year, the 80 20 policy has come under increasing fire from some corners, including the Holocaust Survivors Foundation, some Jewish federation leaders and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which is the national Jewish community relations organization.

These critics say the Claims Conference, which represents 24 Jewish organizations worldwide, should be spending more of its funds on survivors.

The debate is over the proper use of Holocaust restitution money and who is the rightful heir to Holocaust victims’ unclaimed properties — survivors with no relation to those victims, or the entire Jewish people.

That has sparked a further debate about who is responsible for aiding needy survivors.

A year ago, the Claims Conference president, Rabbi Israel Singer, caused a sensation when he wrote in the journal “Sh’ma” that the Claims Conference should devote some of the $11 billion flowing from various restitution settlements toward a new fund for the “future needs of the Jewish people,” including day school education.

Singer’s call amplified a longstanding Claims Conference practice of funding some Holocaust education efforts. Of the $578 million the conference has allocated since 1995, for example, nearly $86 million has aided projects such as a research database at Israel’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem; legal aid to help survivors navigate the reparations process; and youth trips to Holocaust sites in Europe and Israel.

Since Singer’s call, however, pressure has been building on the Claims Conference to revise its 80-20 policy.

Among the chief opponents is the Florida-based Holocaust Survivors Foundation, which represents some 500 grass- roots survivors groups.

Foundation members called on the Claims Conference to revise the formula as it applies to unclaimed East German properties, which so far have yielded $450 million and are expected to total $1 billion when all are sold.

Since the 80-20 split of the East German money started in 1995, the Claims Conference has paid $170 million of those assets to survivors or their heirs, and handled $175 million more in claims still outstanding.

Estimates of the number of survivors in the United States range from 127,000 to 145,000. It is believed that about 40 percent of them can’t afford adequate health care.

Last year, the Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies delivered a study to the judge overseeing the Holocaust-era insurance settlements case, saying it would take $30 million annually to help needy survivors in the United States.

For their part, Claims Conference officials say they have done much to help needy survivors in the United States — where they say about 10 percent of survivors live — and in places such as the former Soviet Union, where many Jews are destitute and receive no government assistance.

Claims Conference officials further maintain that 75 percent of allocations from all the settlements — $750 million in 2001 and 2002 alone — went directly to survivors globally, and that 80 percent of the East German money has funded survivors worldwide.

The Holocaust Survivors Foundation differs on several counts, including the estimated size and needs of the U.S. survivor population.

Over the past year, the Claims Conference and the survivors group have been pressing their arguments nationally.

In response, heads of some major Jewish federations — such as Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, and John Fishel, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles — have said needy survivors should be helped first.

The survivors’ case picked up steam earlier this year when the JCPA passed a non-binding resolution echoing the call to make needy survivors a top priority.

The United Jewish Communities federation umbrella convened a panel that invited both sides to make their cases earlier this month.

UJC officials later weighed in on the matter in a letter to the Claims Conference board.

Lorraine Blass, a senior planner at UJC, and Leonard Cole, who chaired the organization’s Holocaust Survivors Services Committee, said the UJC would work with the Claims Conference to discuss how federations could help in “meeting human service needs.”

UJC officials also said the organization would “pursue discussion” with the overseer of the Swiss banks settlement “to explore possibilities of funds from that source.”

The debate has played out in the Jewish and mainstream press over the past year. The Wall Street Journal devoted a front-page story to the issue, while NBC’s “Today Show” aired a segment on the debate last week.

In the meantime, dozens of survivors and groups weighed in with the Claims Conference ahead of the vote.

Among the petitioners was Natan Sharansky, now Israel’s minister of Diaspora affairs, whose support for Holocaust education echoed the majority of letters the Claims Conference collected and gave to its board.

In a July 18 letter, Sharansky said that “perpetuating the memories” of Eastern European Jewry is a “sacred obligation.”

Ahead of the vote, he told JTA that bodies other than the Claims Conference — such as the federation system — also should help needy survivors.

“If there are increasing needs, it is the role of the Jewish people to meet these needs,” he said.

Also addressing the Claims board was Nobel Prize-winning author Elie Wiesel, who called the controversy “an honest debate” but said he would “shy away” from taking sides.

“We can afford to do both” things, Wiesel told Claims Conference officials Tuesday, referring to education and aid for the needy.

Sallai Meridor, chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization and a Claims Conference board member, urged the conference to press the German government to meet survivors’ welfare needs.

“We should not have to choose between the needs of our parents and the needs of our children,” Meridor said.

The Claims Conference would not allow reporters to attend the debate or witness the vote, but one person who attended the session described it as “an open, respectful debate.”

If nothing else, the resolution affirming the 80-20 split recognized the heightened attention to needy survivors, and in part heeded Meridor’s call.

The resolution said the board would “prioritize the issue of home care in negotiations with the German government.”

A Claims Conference statement also pointed out that the group allocated $3.6 million from the Swiss banks settlement in 2002 to “assist needy Jewish victims of Nazism,” and also earmarked $15 million from the Holocaust- era insurance policies settlement to fund “social services” for survivors worldwide.

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