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Singer bows out of Claims Conference

Israel Singer (Bienert/Bundesregierung)

Israel Singer (Bienert/Bundesregierung)

NEW YORK (JTA) – Another chapter in the Israel Singer saga closed this week when he announced that he would not run for another term as president of the Claims Conference, the lead organization on Holocaust restitution.Singer, who had been president of the organization since 2002, sent its chairman, Julius Berman, a note Tuesday notifying him that he would not run for another term.”There was absolutely no deal connected to my decision,” Singer told JTA in an e-mail exchange. “I want to stress that I was repeatedly assured that I had the support of the senior leadership of the organization. The decision not to run was a personal one that was reached after discussions with my family and some colleagues.” The long-awaited decision leaves open the question of who will
lead the organization, known officially as the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which allocates hundreds of millions dollars each
year to survivors and Holocaust education programs.The Claims Conference will establish a special committee at its annual meeting in July to identify potential successors. The committee then will make a recommendation to the board of directors, officials said.Once considered a Jewish hero for his work with the World Jewish Congress during the movement to free Soviet Jewry and for his work with the WJC and the Claims Conference in negotiating Holocaust restitution settlements, Singer had become a lightning rod within both organizations.Longtime WJC President Edgar Bronfman fired Singer from his senior position at the WJC in March because, Bronfman and WJC Secretary-General Stephen Herbits claimed, Singer nefariously mishandled WJC money.Singer’s supporters maintain that he was a casualty of political moves to reshape the top positions at the WJC. His firing polarized the WJC; it was met with an outcry from his many loyalists. And when Bronfman announced in May that he would retire from the WJC on June 10, many in the WJC lined up according to their allegiance to Singer. They either backed Jewish National Fund President Ronald Lauder, whose most vocal backers had derided Singer as bad for both the WJC and the Claims Conference, or Mendel Kaplan, who many thought might have brought Singer back into the organization.Lauder was elected Sunday to lead the WJC as interim president.Since 1952, the Claims Conference has helped to get some $60 billion in payments from the German government to Holocaust victims. Since 1980 the organization has paid out more than $4.3 billion to Jewish victims of the Nazis through nine programs and another $1 billion for social service programs for survivors in 40 countries, according to Claims Conference officials.The conference is comprised of 24 organizations, including the WJC, each with two voting members, as well as 10 rotating members. The board is slated to meet in July, when it annually elects a president and determines allocations.As president, Singer was the face of the organization and its chief negotiator, but he had no role in the allocations process. The Claims Conference negotiating team will hold its annual restitution negotiations with the German government this month, but it is not clear if Singer will participate.The Claims Conference bylaws say that the president is the head of the negotiating team, according to Berman.”I will be discussing with Dr. Singer what role if any he will play in those negotiations,” the board chairman told JTA. Governments will adjust to dealing with someone other than Singer, Berman said.”There is no question in my mind that whoever heads the delegation of the Claims Conference will be received as the representative of the organized Jewish community,” he said. “It’s the impact of that representation that will make the success of the negotiations, and it has always been so.”But critics say that regardless of Singer’s innocence or guilt in the WJC matter, his role as a negotiator would have been more difficult in the wake of all the controversy surrounding him.Claims Conference members had appeared divided over whether he should stay or go. The Executive Council of Australian Jewry sent Berman a letter asking that the Claims Conference relieve Singer of his duties as president and that the organization publicly disassociate from him. In response to the Australian letter, the fervently Orthodox group Agudath Israel sent a letter to Berman defending Singer. And the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants voted not to support Singer even after its chairman, Roman Kent, had told JTA earlier that he saw “no reason why he could not continue his work with the Claims Conference.”Berman said another letter in support of Singer that was circulating and gathering signatures was never sent to him. Singer told JTA that he made his decision for personal reasons and because it would have been difficult to win as an independent, as he no longer represented the WJC or any organization.”There was no political pressure not to run,” Singer told JTA in the e-mail. “No one except for one or two very vocal critics – who seem to have had a personal agenda – even suggested that I shouldn’t run. Their input didn’t factor into my decision and I still believe that had I run, my candidacy would have been successful – perhaps not unanimously this time, but I think I would have won.”

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