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Israeli Officials Jump into Fray over Use of Swiss Bank Settlement

April 27, 2004
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Israeli officials are blasting recommendations that money from the $1.25 billion Swiss banks settlement should be used to help Holocaust survivors in the former Soviet Union before others.

The criticism surfaced Sunday in a special meeting of the Knesset’s Ministerial Committee on the Restoration of Jewish Property, which included Cabinet minister Natan Sharansky and Sallai Meridor, co-chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization and chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Their meeting came after Judge Edward Korman of the Eastern District of New York received a report by Judah Gribetz, a special master he appointed to advise him in the case, urging that the bulk of some $600 million remaining from the Swiss bank settlement go to the poorest survivors in the former Soviet Union and Central Europe.

The Gribetz report reflects “a total ignorance of the needs of survivors in Israel and throughout the world except for those in the FSU,” Meridor told JTA through a spokesman.

Such harsh criticism surfaces as Korman is due April 29 to hear from some of the nearly 100 parties seeking a piece of the landmark 1998 class-action settlement, in which major Swiss banks agreed to compensate Jews or their heirs whose accounts were looted during the Holocaust.

Because documentation for many if not most account holders was destroyed, the settlement aimed to award other Holocaust victims as well, spurring scores of appeals since.

So far the court has awarded $593 million, including nearly $155 million to 2,000 account holders. Money also has gone to slave laborers for German firms that whitewashed their profits through Swiss banks; slave laborers for Swiss companies; refugees expelled from or denied entrance to Switzerland; and 100,000 Jews and non-Jews such as Gypsies and homosexuals.

In his report, Gribetz echoed previous statements by Korman arguing that the top priority now should be providing food and emergency aid to survivors in the former Soviet Union, who need the most aid and receive the least government assistance.

But the WJRO, representing eight appeals from Israeli survivors and other groups including Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, asked Korman for 48 percent of the remaining funds to aid Israeli survivors and education and remembrance efforts in Israel.

In making their appeals, the Israelis point to a study by Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola, who estimated that 511,000 of the world’s 1,092,000 survivors, or 47 percent, live in Israel. Many have arrived from the former Soviet Union since 1990, they add, and many are needy.

“The report has done very badly in terms of survivors and commemoration,” Meridor’s spokesman quoted him as saying. “You could not say that giving food is more important than giving mental health assistance or assistance to the disabled survivor who cannot get out of bed, or giving a home to a survivor who made aliyah but has no place to live.”

Neither Gribetz nor Korman would comment about such charges, but Gribetz pointed to comments by Korman that he cited in his report.

At one point, Korman wrote that his chief aim of helping the neediest survivors would not be met in an appeal “for funds equal to whatever percentage of the world survivor community it represents without regard to whether those survivors are in fact as needy as survivors in other countries.”

Gribetz also wrote that the court considered a handful of demographic studies that estimated the world survivor population, ranging from 687,900 found by Jacob Ukeles of New York to DellaPergola’s figure. Each study varied in its count of local populations, but Gribetz found the studies missed the point of survivor needs.

Gribetz echoed a Brandeis University report commissioned by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which administers aid in the former Soviet Union, that found survivors there are “clearly more disadvantaged” than others.

Meanwhile, Israel Singer, the WJRO chairman and president of the Claims Conference, which handled reparations from Germany and other countries, said he would likely ask Korman for a “supplemental hearing” to discuss other issues.

Though Korman has been vocal in criticizing the Swiss banks for delaying the settlement process, “it doesn’t mean you have to give up and give money to some Jewish organization,” Singer said.

The Israeli protests join challenges from U.S. survivor groups such as the Miami-based Holocaust Survivors Foundation, which has promised to demonstrate at Korman’s hearing.

Sharansky also reportedly will testify to Korman via a video-conference hookup, and Nobel prize winner Elie Wiesel has submitted a letter underscoring the need for remembrance.

But one Jewish official close to the case, who asked not to be named, voiced surprise at the intensity of the Israeli and U.S. reactions.

These appeals to Korman are “just one step in the process,” the official said. “The Israelis are acting like this is a fait accompli. Nothing is etched in stone. There is no reason to get desperate.”

Korman has indicated it could take weeks or more before he makes a decision.

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