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In addition to his chairmanship of the Claims Conference, Berman, one of the Jewish community’s most active leaders, has served in a leadership capacity with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Orthodox Union and Yeshiva University’s rabbinic seminary, among other posts.
Asked to comment on the new disclosure about Berman’s earlier role, Andrew Baker, the Conference’s vice president, said, “On the one hand, anyone would tell you, ‘Goodness, if we could have known about this fraud 12 years ago, so much could have been prevented.’ On the other hand, they did make an effort to find out, to track it down.”
Baker noted that as a member of the board he was not briefed on the initial tip or on Berman’s inquiry, although Baker noted that the board only meets once a year and “these are people who are not connected on a day-to-day basis.”
Meanwhile, the Forward’s initial disclosure of the 2001 letter has triggered demands within the Claims Conference board of directors to investigate how the early warning was examined.
“Was the existence of the aforementioned letter … ever disclosed to the board of directors?” asked Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, in a letter to Berman.
Shortly after, Berman informed Claims Conference board members of his decision to set up a committee, headed by Chairman of the Executive Reuven Merhav, to “formulate an appropriate course of action for the Conference with respect to the issues surrounding the 2001 letter.”
Merhav, a former director general of the Israeli foreign ministry, told the Forward he will begin work on the investigation next week, after setting up a three-person team that will not include Berman. “We will not leave a stone unturned,” Merhav said.
But meanwhile, pressure has been mounting on the Claims Conference to launch an independent investigation. Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and a member of the Conference board, has demanded that a probe be carried out by a “public independent committee” into how the Claims Conference dealt with the 2001 fraud scheme tipoff.
Sharansky made his call in a recent letter to Berman, according to a May 22 report in the Jerusalem Post. Sharansky recommended that the investigators be individuals “who are not connected to either the Board of the Directors or the beneficiaries…so that the public trust in this important organization not be damaged,” a spokesman for Sharansky told the Post.
The WJC has also made clear it is following up on the issue. Lauder, a Conference board member, announced the formation of a WJC task force. It will examine all questions raised regarding the Merhav investigation and the early warning of the fraud to Claims Conference officials. “We are awaiting both the response to our questions and the recommendations Reuven Merhav’s team is going to make,” said Menachem Rosensaft, the WJC’s general counsel.