Gideon Taylor, the former executive vice president at the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, is returning as its president.
The board of the organization, which negotiates and distributes the billions of dollars paid out in German reparations for the Holocaust, confirmed his appointment to the top lay position Tuesday.
Members of the board — including Marlene Post, the head of the nominating committee and a former president of Hadassah; Stuart Eizenstat, the former White House official; and Colette Avital, the former Israeli diplomat — describe Taylor as uniquely qualified to succeed Jules Berman, who is stepping down after 18 years.
In addition to his tenure at the organization from 2000 to 2009, Taylor was most recently operations chair of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, a sister body which advocates for the restitution of Jewish property in Eastern European countries. Currently the head of a family commercial real estate company, the Dublin-born Taylor also led Jewish rescue and relief efforts as an executive at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
“The Claims Conference has one purpose and one purpose only,” said Menachem Rosensaft, a board member and general counsel of the World Jewish Congress, “and that is to help and support Holocaust survivors and to negotiate with Germany and to a lesser extent with Austria … in order to obtain the necessary additional funds in order to provide for the needs of survivors. In that respect there is no one with the experience and the knowledge that Gideon has in this regard. He doesn’t need a learning curve. He doesn’t need to try and figure out what the various funds are, what the issues involved are.”
Taylor’s time as executive vice president, however, also coincided with a low point for the organization, when employees stole an estimated $57 million in funds designated for Holocaust survivors in a scheme involving false claims for restitution. The Claims Conference itself alerted the FBI to the scam after Taylor left the job in 2009, and neither the FBI nor an internal probe found Taylor responsible.
In an interview with The Jewish Week last Friday, Taylor spoke about the scandal and also about his priorities for an organization that dispenses nearly $1 billion a year in direct support for 60,000 survivors and to social welfare programs that serve them.
“I deeply regret the fraud took place, and I deeply regret that we didn’t catch it,” said Taylor, 55. “It was discovered after I left and once it was discovered, I worked with the investigating authorities closely. And since then, the Claims Conference has taken many steps in conjunction with the German government to prevent fraudulent activity.” That the conference continues to secure “major increased funding” from the German government every year is a sign of the trust placed in the organization, he said. “We all learn from the mistakes that happened 11 years ago,” Taylor continued. “There’s been a set of very significant changes to the systems and procedures following what happened.”
Rosensaft says the fraud scandal is well in the past and that board members agreed that Taylor’s experience and expertise outweighed any criticism that might be directed at his appointment.
“Balancing between potential optics and ensuring that the needs of the survivors are served, I will take the latter anytime,” said Rosensaft. “I also have the added benefit of having known Gideon throughout his entire tenure at the Claims Conference. I have always found him to be a person of the highest integrity, total dedication and one of the brightest people I know.”
In addition to annual negotiations with the German government assuring funding for survivors and the 300-member network of social service agencies that serve them, Taylor said he hopes to focus on property restitution in partnership with the WJRO.
Another priority is Holocaust education and commemoration, currently a small part of the overall budget but a growing concern as the survivor generation dwindles. “Their welfare is the first priority of the Claims Conference, but what we often hear from Holocaust survivors is, ‘Don’t forget the message of what happened. It’s your job to make sure that that message is transmitted, that’s your responsibility too.’ For us that’s also a sacred mission,” he said.
Taylor will also address the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, setting up a task force to focus on places, like Florida, where there are significant populations of Holocaust survivors and rising case counts. The goal is “making sure that agencies have the flexibility to move the funds around in order to deal with what the needs are, and that they have the cash to deal with them.” The conference made $4.3 million available to enable agencies to respond to specific needs of the pandemic.
Next up: Fighting the effects of social isolation on the elderly, which he sees as an opportunity to “link a younger generation with the generation of Holocaust survivors.”
Taylor said he intends to build on Berman’s legacy, which he described in part as unifying disparate groups and interests around the needs of survivors. The conference “brings together the range of Jewish life — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, secular Jews are all sitting at the table. Americans, Israelis, Europeans are all at the table. What Julie was able to do, and what is essential for the Claims Conference, is to bring together all those different views to make sure that the Claims Conference moves in a unified way, because the challenges are great.”