Israeli Groups Set to Challenge Recommendations on Swiss Fund

Senior Israeli officials are preparing to challenge a report to a federal judge urging that Holocaust survivors in the former Soviet Union be given compensation priority from the $1.25 billion Swiss bank settlement ahead of survivors in Israel.

The Knesset’s Ministerial Committee on the Restoration of Jewish Property is set to meet Sunday on the Swiss banks struggle in a session that will include Knesset minister Natan Sharansky, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and representatives of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the World Jewish Restitution Organization, the European Jewish Congress and the United Jewish Communities, North America’s federation umbrella group. The Israelis convened the meeting in the hope of lodging an appeal to Judge Edward Korman, of the Eastern District of New York, who is scheduled to hear some 80 proposals on April 29 — including eight by some of these Israeli groups — staking a claim to nearly $600 million remaining from the settlement.

Under a landmark 1998 class-action settlement, the court so far has paid out $593 million primarily to survivors or their heirs whose Swiss bank accounts were frozen during the war, to refugees from Switzerland, and to slave laborers in German firms that held Swiss accounts.

The Israeli meeting comes after an adviser Korman appointed in the case, Special Master Judah Gribetz, issued a report this week echoing the judge’s earlier contention that the poorest survivors worldwide who reside in the former Soviet Union and Central Europe should be given top priority once the initial compensation was paid.

The Israeli officials are urging the judge to reconsider bids from the WJRO and Jewish Agency that 48 percent of the $600 million be used to aid 508,100 survivors in Israel, who account for nearly half of the estimated 1,092,000 survivors worldwide. An estimated 12 to 21 percent of survivors live in the former Soviet Union and Central Europe.

Bobby Brown, director of the Jerusalem office of the World Jewish Congress and a WJRO official, told JTA that the Knesset meeting comes amid anger and shock that Gribetz was “ignoring” two widely held principles Holocaust restitution groups have followed.

Those guidelines say some 80 percent of compensation should be spread among survivors worldwide, with 20 percent dedicated to Holocaust education and remembrance, he said. Gribetz and Korman have signaled that up to 79 percent of the leftover Swiss funds should go to survivors in the former Soviet Union and Central Europe.

“You have an adviser sitting in Manhattan who decided to go against the advice of world Jewry, who made an incredibly discriminatory decision,” Brown said of Gribetz, a noted New York attorney.

While Brown said Israeli officials are sympathetic to the plight of needy survivors in the former Soviet Union, survivors in Israel also are going hungry and relying on social services due to budget cutbacks.

“There should be greater consideration for the survivors in Israel,” Brown said.

Gribetz told JTA that as an officer of the court he would not respond to the charges publicly, but he pointed to sections of his 77-page report to rebut the accusations.

“We’re not at liberty to make off-the-cuff remarks,” he said.

Gribetz’s report cited Korman’s assertion that the “very neediest victims” in the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe, who earn the least and receive the lowest quality social services, should receive food, winter relief and emergency financial aid in the “first tranche” of funding.

After that, survivors in those regions, in the United States and in Israel who need home health care and medical aid should be helped, Gribetz wrote.

Gribetz’s report also points out that the bulk of Holocaust compensation so far has gone to survivors in Israel and the United States. The various restitution funds have awarded $23.6 billion to Israeli survivor programs, $15 billion to U.S. survivor efforts and only $444 million to the former Soviet Union.

Weighing in with the appeals to Korman was Nobel Prize-winning author and survivor Elie Wiesel. In a letter to the World Jewish Congress, a WJRO constituent, Wiesel wrote that while survivors should remain “the principal recipients” of the Swiss settlement, “the need to repair the spirit must also be taken into account.”

“It would be appropriate that a small proportion of the proceeds be used for purposes of Holocaust education and memorialization,” Wiesel wrote.

Gribetz wrote that while such needs remain “great,” Korman made clear that “it would be inappropriate to fund these programs when the needs of Nazi victims remain so ‘overwhelming.’ “

Brown said that in addition to a fresh appeal to Korman, he hoped Israeli officials would propose that money from all the restitution battles be used to create a “single, fair distribution system” that would balance all survivor needs.

That way, he said, no single survivor group would be “heavily subsidized.”

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