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Claims Conference Members Weighing Whether to Bring in a New President

Israel Singer’s future as president of the Claims Conference remains uncertain nearly two months after he was fired from the World Jewish Congress amid allegations of financial misconduct.

As the conference president, a position unconnected to his former role at the WJC, Singer has been the lead negotiator and a major force in securing billions in payments for Jewish Holocaust survivors. But the taint of financial malfeasance that led to his firing on March 14 has prompted some calls for his replacement at the conference and led others to question whether he can still effectively bargain on behalf of survivors when his own integrity has been impugned.

In late June, the conference is scheduled to conduct its yearly session with representatives of the German Ministry of Finance in Berlin over restitution issues. It is unclear whether Singer will participate, according to an official at the Claims Conference.

A vote to determine the group’s leadership is expected at the conference’s board meeting in July. Elections were slated long before the current controversies erupted over Singer.

For his part, Singer told JTA he would not comment about his future at the Claims Conference.

Only two of the conference’s 24 member organizations have staked out public positions on Singer’s future. Agudath Israel World Organization, a fervently Orthodox group, is supporting Singer, while the Executive Council of Australian Jewry Inc. opposes him continuing as president.

Both organizations conveyed their views in letters to Julius Berman, the conference chairman, and Gideon Taylor, its executive vice president.

Beyond that, however, sources at many of the remaining organizations say they have yet to formally determine their positions. Roger Cukierman, the outgoing president of CRIF, the umbrella organization of French Jewish communities, told JTA the European Jewish Congress was expected to discuss the issue at a meeting in Lo! ndon lat er this week and that CRIF most likely would follow the European lead.

Stephan Kramer, secretary-general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said his organization also would likely follow the EJC.

Other groups say they expect the issue to be discussed in the coming weeks. The World Jewish Congress, which is also a member, also has yet to decide who it will recommend for president.

At issue is the question of whether Singer can continue to serve as the conference’s lead negotiator after being tarred with allegations that he misused WJC money. Singer’s supporters counter that his long and distinguished record should prevail over what they say are unproven charges.

Kramer suggested that European media coverage of the WJC’s troubles had weakened the conference, but he cautioned against condemning Singer on the basis of those charges.

“Based on my knowledge, what he did for the Claims Conference and for the survivors, and without knowledge of anything else, I see no reason why he could not continue his work with the Claims Conference,” said Roman Kent, chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, a conference member organization.

Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, the chief rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine, has been circulating a letter of support for Singer that is said to have the endorsement of a number of conference members.

But while it has been circulating for several weeks, it has not yet been sent to Berman.

The Australians argue that anyone in Singer’s position must be free from even the suggestion of impropriety, particularly since the conference is the protector of assets of Holocaust survivors.

Such concerns were heightened earlier this month when it was disclosed that Singer had authorized unexplained payments from the WJC to a close associate who later received similarly unexplained payments from the March of the Living, a Claims Conference beneficiary.

“The Claims Conference must not engage,! employ or appoint any officer whose moral authority can be challenged in any way,” wrote Grahame Leonard, the Australian council president.

With nearly $1 billion in reported assets, the Claims Conference has become one of the wealthiest Jewish foundations in the world, disbursing hundreds of millions of dollars a year to needy survivors and Holocaust education projects.

Though Singer is not formally involved in the allocations process — that responsibility lies with Berman — he has garnered a global reputation as a pugnacious and fearsome negotiator.

Berman told JTA that he intends to take the pulse of the organization as the July meeting nears, but sources say that alternatives to a straight vote on Singer’s future are in the offing.

Singer could step aside permanently or temporarily to allow the charges against him to be sorted out and then resume his functions. Or the conference could decide not to name a replacement and allow the organization to revert to its earlier leadership structure, when it was led only by a president, rather than continue to divide leadership duties between a president and chairman.

Were the bifurcated leadership structure to be retained, one name that has been mentioned repeatedly as a possible successor to Singer is Stuart Eizenstat, a former Clinton administration State Department official who has been a leading figure in the effort to win restitution settlements from European governments.

Eizenstat told JTA he has not been approached about the position. Asked last month if he would consider taking the job, he responded with an emphatic “Oh, God, no,” citing other responsibilities.

Asked again this week, Eizenstat said it wasn’t appropriate to comment, but he did pay tribute to Singer’s track record as a negotiator and expressed faith in his ability to continue as conference president.

“I think it all depends on whether the organization itself will support him,” Eizenstat said. “If they do I! think h e’ll be effective. I think it solely depends not on external charges but on how his own organization deals with those charges.”

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