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Passions erupt over insurance bill

WASHINGTON (JTA) – For two hours one morning last week, the proceedings of the Financial Services Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives had all the excitement of an afternoon spent watching grass grow. Members thanked the chairman for convening the meeting, witnesses thanked the members for their questions, and the chairman thanked everyone for keeping it brief.

But after a nearly hour-long break to cast some votes in the House, the committee chairman, U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), was in no mood for further delays. Gavel at the ready, he interrupted one speaker after the next at the Feb. 7 hearings, urging them to get to the point.

At issue before the committee was the Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act, a bill that would require insurance companies to provide information on Holocaust-era insurance claims to a federal registry maintained by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

More contentiously, it would pave the way for a new round of lawsuits against European insurers, many of whom believed they had finally put the issue of Holocaust-era claims to rest.

At the witness table was a who’s who of Holocaust restitution figures. Among them were Stuart Eizenstat, who as an envoy in the Clinton administration negotiated landmark restitution settlements with European countries; Roman Kent, chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, and Sam Dubbin, a Miami attorney who has represented survivors in several restitution-related lawsuits.

Frank urged them to dispense with the usual thank-yous and other pleasantries, and he ruthlessly cut them off once they had exceeded their time limit.

And then it was Kent’s turn. He kept talking, right through a bang of Frank’s gavel. Finally, the congressman told him that his time was up.

“That’ll have to do, Mr. Kent,” Frank said after the second gavel bang. “You said another minute and we’re over that.”

“No, I do appreciate,” Kent protested. “I just have to finish.”

“Ten seconds,” Frank said.

“I cannot do it.”

“Then we’ll get back to you in the questioning. We’re going way over on all these and I did try to advise you. The next witness will be—“

“Can I just finish my conclusion?” offered Kent, who opposes the legislation.

“No,” Frank said, “we’ll get to you in the questioning.”

The proposed legislation, authored by two Florida lawmakers – Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Democrat Robert Wexler – is a response to the perceived failure of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims.

Established in 1998 in response to mounting pressure on European insurers, the commission established a process through which survivors could register claims against a handful of participating companies, though the commission later expanded the number to 75 through negotiated agreements. Claims were to be evaluated based on a relaxed standard of proof, in recognition of the fact that most claimants lacked sufficient documentation for their insurance policies nearly 60 years after the end of World War II.

More than 90,000 claims were received over nearly nine years of operations of the insurance commission, known as ICHEIC. More than $300 million was doled out to about half of the claimants.

To defenders of the process, these results represented a monumental achievement. But to critics, the final payments pale in comparison to the value of pre-war insurances policies, total estimates of which range from $2 billion to $200 billion.

The bill has proven to be equally divisive. Some Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, B’nai Brith International and the World Jewish Congress oppose its adoption.

So does the U.S. State Department and the German government, which expressed its displeasure late last year in a letter to the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), who died this week.

The Foreign Affairs Committee approved the bill in October.

"The legislation would restore the basic rights of survivors," said Israel Arbeiter, a survivor from Boston who also testified before the committee. "It isn’t asking for very much, really. Is it too much for Holocaust survivors to have the right of access to American courts to sue insurance companies who cheated our families out of our insurance proceeds?"

Though committee members generally didn’t explicitly convey support for the bill, it was evident there was significant sympathy for Arbeiter’s position.

“This is about greed,” said U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), summing up what appeared to be a widespread sentiment among the handful of committee members present. “This is about denial. This is another aspect of Holocaust denial.”

Wexler spoke twice, both times raising his voice and waving his arms. At one point, he wondered how Jewish organizational leaders could sleep at night knowing they were standing in the way of survivors pursuing remuneration for defaulted policies.

Wexler noted that even by the lowest figures, ICHEIC paid out only 15 percent of the estimated value of pre-war policies, and time is running out for elderly survivors to achieve a measure of justice.

“If this bill does not pass,” Wexler said, “game over.”

During the questioning, Frank inquired about Switzerland and Austria, which some have suggested have not been as responsive to claims against insurance companies.

“Mr. Kent, did you want to respond to that, about Austria and Switzerland,” Frank asked.

“I would but first, with your permission Chairman Leach, to finish what you said I will…," Kent said, confusing Frank with U.S. Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), who chaired the Financial Services Committee until 2007.

Unfazed by the mix-up, the Massachusetts lawmaker grudgingly agreed – if Kent would keep it short.

“If you can do it in 30 seconds, Mr. Kent,” Frank replied. “You had over 10 minutes for a five minute period.”

Kent returned to his prepared statement, arguing that ongoing negotiations with European governments could be undermined if participants could not be assured that, even once they paid up, they would be spared further action.

It was a logical point, one made by Eizenstat, the Jewish groups and a representative from the State Department. But Frank had clearly heard enough.

“No, I’m sorry Mr. Kent, that’s enough,” Frank said. “You’re abusing, you’re abusing the privilege of the committee. You had over 10 minutes. I’ve listened a lot. I now want to get to the questions.”

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