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Allocating Justice the Claims Conference Club: 24 Members Oversee Billions

February 12, 2004
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When a small group of non-elected representatives controls the distribution of billions of dollars to tens of thousands of Jews, discord is inevitable.

And when the recipients are aging Holocaust survivors and the money at issue is restitution for their suffering at the hands of the Nazis, differences of opinion carry the weight of moral debate.

So as the Claims Conference prepares to publicize $74 million in new allocations from money generated from the sale of unclaimed Jewish assets seized by the Nazis in East Germany during World War II, critics are speaking up who disagree with many of the grant allocations and say the structure of the conference, which determines those allocations, largely is to blame.

At the heart of the argument over the composition of the Claims Conference board is a power struggle over restitution priorities, negotiating strategy with the Europeans, who should get restitution money, how large payouts should be and how quickly money should be distributed.

At the lead are critics who say that the Claims Conference is not representative of Holocaust survivors and — because the conference’s permanent members are not elected — that the board is not answerable to the constituency it was founded to serve.

Conference officials say the voices of the Jewish people are well represented and that there are no issues decided at the conference that pit non-survivors against survivors.

Founded in 1951 to recover Jewish material claims against Germany, the Claims Conference board comprises 24 groups, all but three of which are founding members.

Each group has equal voting power, with two representatives on the board. There also are 10 rotating ad personam members of the board — prominent individuals, many of them Holocaust survivors — chosen by the conference’s chairman in consultation with its president, then approved by the board’s permanent member organizations.

The problem, critics say, is that this small but tremendously powerful club is not representative of the Jewish world — or the world’s Holocaust survivors.

For one thing, they say, there are only two survivor organizations on the board, added in 1988 after intense lobbying by survivors. Survivor advocates say that’s not enough.

“The Claims Conference is an organization that was created because of survivors and for survivors, and therefore to have only two survivor organizations is improper,” said Roman Kent, chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and treasurer of the Claims Conference.

But Gideon Taylor, the Claims Conference’s executive vice president, said, “The voices of the Jewish world are there in the policy discussions of the Claims Conference.”

Not only do the ad personam members bolster survivor representation, Taylor said, but almost all of the board’s votes pass unanimously or by a wide consensus.

But critics like Kent say there is a difference between individuals who happen to be survivors and those charged with representing survivors’ interests.

The chairman of the Claims Conference, Julius Berman, dismisses such criticism.

“If you were talking about the United Nations,” he said, “that’s one thing. But when you sit around the table of the allocations commission, there is no other agenda. Every one of these non-survivor organizations has the same agenda as the survivors. The survivors and the non-survivors don’t vote differently.”

Critics point to other disparities in the conference’s composition.

There are six U.S. groups, but only two Israeli groups: the Jewish Agency for Israel, which is funded primarily by North American Jewish federations, and the Centre of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel.

Conference officials say Israeli representation is boosted by the ad personam board members.

The conference has no groups from the former Soviet Union, though the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and a British group called World Jewish Relief — both conference members — use restitution funds to provide services to hundreds of thousands of Jews in the former Soviet Union. Conference officials say the European Jewish Congress also covers the former Soviet Union.

There are as many German groups on the board as there are Israeli ones — and more from Germany than hail from Canada, Australia or the entirety of Latin America, each of which has one group on the board.

The conference includes the Reform movement’s worldwide organization, the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and a major fervently Orthodox group, the Agudath Israel World Organization — but not Conservative or centrist Orthodox groups.

“The Claims Conference should be restructured,” said Elan Steinberg, executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress, which is a conference member.

It “is a creature of the early 1950s,” he said. “It simply reflects a political division of the Jewish community from more than a half century ago, in the aftermath of the Second World War.”

A Claims Conference source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said perfect representation on the board is impossible.

“Is it based on Jews? Is it based on survivors? I don’t know how you’d even do it,” he said. “Who speaks for the Jews? In everyone’s viewpoint, they speak for the Jews.”

Critics also say some smaller members — such as the American Zionist Movement, the Jewish Labor Committee and the Anglo-Jewish Association — hardly merit a seat on a board deciding billions of dollars in allocations.

The Anglo-Jewish Association, a British group, has a paid staff of “one and a half” and is primarily an education organization. It distributes about $275,000 per year in education grants, mostly to students, and its cash reserves are made up primarily from bequests made in the early 1900s, according to a former president, David Loewe.

Loewe, who still sits on the association’s executive committee, said it holds “two or three events per year of substance,” but “since the end of the 1950s it has taken a much lower profile.”

The American Zionist Movement, an umbrella group for U.S. Zionist groups, has a staff of three and an annual budget of about $330,000, according to the group’s executive director and IRS filings for 2001.

The group’s Web site lists five programs: a Zionist song competition, a Zionist Chanukah celebration, a campaign to bring home Israeli MIAs, program suggestions for Israel’s Memorial Day and a Zionist archival project.

The Jewish Labor Committee has a nationwide staff of 10 and an annual budget of about $750,000, according to the group’s communications director and IRS filings for 2002. The group, which does not have a Web site, works primarily with Jewish labor-related groups and issues.

Despite these groups’ size, they have as much power in the Holocaust-restitution allocations process as the JDC, B’nai B’rith International, the WJC, the Jewish Agency and the European Jewish Congress.

Those better-known groups serve hundreds of thousands of Jews, have multimillion-dollar budgets and are major players in contemporary Jewish life.

To be sure, groups like the Jewish Labor Committee and the Anglo-Jewish Association helped found the Claims Conference in the aftermath of the Holocaust and played a role assisting Jews before, during and after the war. But the organizations since have shrunk and do not represent the sizeable constituencies they once did.

“Is there any advantage to throwing them off?” asked Greg Schneider, chief operating officer of the Claims Conference. “The important thing is: Is there anybody’s voices who aren’t heard?”

The executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee, Avram Lyon, said, “When you walk into that room and sit down, you are there not as a representative of your organization. You’re really there as a representative of the Jewish people.”

“We ourselves are not terribly happy about the allocations process either, or how allocations are decided. It has been an issue that we have raised and we hope that they will address,” Lyon said. “But to say that the organization” — the Claims Conference — “is not representative is a mistake.”

As the bridge between the Jewish community and organized labor, the Jewish Labor Committee “represents is a much larger number and influential group of people probably than any other group” on the Claims Conference, Lyon added.

Despite the criticism, even the Claims Conference’s most vocal critics maintain that the organization is doing important and valuable work.

“In spite of certain criticisms of the Claims Conference, I certainly subscribe to the good deeds which the Claims Conference is performing,” Kent said. “The only one who cannot be criticized is the one who does nothing. The Claims Conference is doing a lot of good things.”

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