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Plan to centralize Holocaust restitution

NEW YORK, July 23 (JTA) — Was it a revolution or a resolution? After a stormy few weeks leading up to this week’s annual board meeting of the Claims Conference, the main group charged with Holocaust restitution, an agreement was reached to centralize world Jewry’s restitution efforts. “Instead of sitting here and fighting about the pie, let’s go out and get a bigger pie,” Amir Shaviv, assistant executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, said of the new strategy to bolster worldwide restitution efforts. The JDC is a member of the Claims Conference. The meeting may also have quelled — for the time being — the controversy surrounding the distribution of unclaimed funds left from the $1.25 billion Swiss banks settlement. A presentation by Claims Conference officials showed there actually may be no funds left over from that settlement once all claims have been resolved. Depending on who one talks to, the agreement on centralizing restitution either marked a historic revolution against Claims Conference control, or resolved criticism against the restitution group and signaled that the organization is more successful and influential than ever. For now, both sides are claiming victory. On Thursday, toward the end of the two-day meeting in New York, board members approved a resolution to create a panel to “discuss coordination of restitution efforts outside Germany and Austria” that “should include the participation of all relevant groups involved in the restitution of funds.” It was not immediately clear who those groups would be outside of the Claims Conference and the World Jewish Restitution Organization. The Claims Conference deals with Germany and Austria, while the WJRO is charged with securing restitution elsewhere. The resolution came on the heels of a call by some Claims Conference board members, and by Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to create a “blue-ribbon panel” to examine how to “increase efficiency, transparency, relevance and coordination in restitution efforts.” Critics have charged that the Claims Conference, created in 1951 to press Jewish material claims against Germany, is not sufficiently representative of today’s Jewish world and keeps too much of its work behind closed doors. One of the conference’s most vocal critics described Thursday’s agreement as a “remarkable transformation.” “The bottom line is, a revolution has occurred,” said Elan Steinberg, executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress and a Claims Conference board member. Steinberg told JTA in January that the conference “should be restructured” and that its handling of the distribution of unclaimed Holocaust-era assets runs “contrary to the very principles of democracy, accountability and transparency.” After Thursday’s meeting, Steinberg said the new resolution would open up the restitution process to the entire Jewish world. He said the panel would deal with restitution for every country, including Germany and Austria, which until now have been the Claims Conference’s exclusive domain. “All we are saying now is that a roundtable has been established. The participants will of course be talking about restitution from everywhere,” he said. But the Claims Conference’s chairman, Julius Berman, said the decision to create the panel was not a revolution but a move to get the group more involved in restitution efforts worldwide. That would constitute an expansion of the Claims Conference’s role and a sign that Jewish groups want to make use of the group’s expertise in seeking restitution from other European countries involved in the Holocaust. The WJRO has had limited success in getting Eastern European countries to return Jewish assets seized by the Nazis or their allies to their rightful Jewish owners. “Somebody is saying the WJRO needs adrenaline, and we have to revamp it,” Berman said. The creation of the panel “really is the Claims Conference’s effort to help the WJRO in its present form or a restructured form to engage in the restitution effort.” Berman added, “We’re not talking about a merger. As far as Germany and Austria, we’re not asking for help and they’re not suggesting we need help.” Steinberg said, “I think Julius Berman comes to the table with a different notion than others have, and that is the purpose of having a roundtable.” Thursday’s resolution stated that the panel would deal only with coordinating restitution efforts outside Germany and Austria. The resolution added that the “independence and autonomy of the Claims Conference shall be maintained in any such process and that any recommendations arising out of such a panel that affect the legal status, structure, or Board-approved policies of the Claims Conference shall be brought to the Board of Directors for review and action.” Participants said the clause was meant to ward off any effort to wrest control of Holocaust restitution for Germany and Austria from the Claims Conference itself. Bobby Brown, senior adviser on Holocaust-era property at the Jewish Agency for Israel, hailed the resolution as a landmark development. “This will be the first real and open discussion on the restitution issue that has taken place since the early 1950s,” he said. “It will be based on inclusion, the rights of survivors, as well as the rights of service providers to needy Holocaust victims. I hope and I believe that these meetings will address the issues that are of concern to everyone, and in a transparent fashion provide answers for all.” Part of the impetus for creating a panel to centralize restitution efforts arose out of the divisiveness engendered by the distribution of unclaimed funds from the 1998 Swiss banks settlement. According to the settlement’s terms, once all the owners of Holocaust-era Swiss bank accounts are found and compensated, U.S. District Court Judge Edward Korman will decide how to distribute remaining money. Korman has indicated that he’ll use a formula that would send most of those unclaimed funds — at this point, an estimated $650 million — to survivor organizations in the former Soviet Union, with smaller portions going to survivors in Israel, North America and elsewhere. That has incensed many survivor groups in the United States and Israel, which say they’re not getting a fair share. More recently, Israeli government officials have weighed in on the case, saying that Israel should have a greater say in how the money is distributed since Israel is home to the largest survivor population in the world. “There is unanimity across the board that those first entitled to this money are legitimate claimants,” Brown said. “But pretty much across the Jewish world there’s also agreement that if there are any unclaimed funds, they must benefit Holocaust survivors wherever they are.” The Claims Conference — which has not had a role in the Swiss case except to help find claimants — now warns that the fight over the funds is premature. On June 10, the Claims Conference reached an agreement with the U.S. court and Swiss banks to publish an additional 5,000 names of Holocaust-era Swiss account owners, allow the Claims Conference limited access to search certain bank records, and check Jewish claimants against records of 4.1 million Swiss bank accounts. The effort probably would take 12 to 18 months. That deal, which still needs Swiss government approval, could use up all the money in the settlement because it would find more account holders, conference officials said. That assessment may render moot or at least defer the debate over who should get the leftover money, a debate that some say has turned ugly in recent weeks. “I think we’re way too soon on this issue,” said Avram Lyon, executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee and a Claims Conference board member. “It leaves a very bitter taste in your mouth to see this kind of bickering over something which may not be there altogether. It’s not right.”