When the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants called for an independent review into the handling of an anonymous tipoff that could have curtailed a $57 million fraud, it became the latest in a string of Jewish organizations to publicly break ranks with the leadership of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
But the decision was noteworthy for another reason. Roman Kent, chairman of the American Gathering, is a member of the internal Claims Conference committee that his own organization wants replaced by an independent inquiry.
“While we do not question the integrity of [the] committee,” Max Liebmann, senior vice president of the American Gathering, wrote to the Claims Conference on June 3, “the process of providing answers to the entire Board … must be able to withstand any and all scrutiny.”
The American Gathering is one of several organizations represented on the board of the Claims Conference that has publicly questioned the organization’s handling of the anonymous 2001 letter. The fraud, which was eventually uncovered in 2009, is thought to have gone on for about 15 years. Since 1951, the Claims Conference has distributed billions of dollars from the German government as restitution to Holocaust survivors.
In recent weeks, Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, sent several pointed questions about the handling of the 2001 letter to Julius Berman, the chairman of the Claims Conference. Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, has publicly called for an independent investigation into how the letter was dealt with by Claims Conference officials.
Samuel Norich, a representative of the Jewish Labor Committee, also called for an independent investigation in a memo circulated among board members on June 3. (Norich is president of the Forward Association, which publishes the Forward.) And Stefanie Seltzer, president of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants, told the Forward on June 4 that she believes that the investigation should only be carried out by people “totally independent of the Claims Conference.”
On May 19, Berman announced the formation of a “select leadership committee” comprised of his fellow board members to investigate issues related to the 2001 letter.
UPDATE: The committee announced on June 6 that it has asked the Claims Conference’s ombudsman to “investigate the facts surrounding the 2001 letter” and that the committee would report back to the full board in early July.
The committee is headed by Reuven Merhav, a widely respected former Israeli diplomat. In addition to Kent, the other committee members are Abraham Biderman, a representative of Agudath Israel World Organization, and Robert Goot, of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.
Biderman and Kent are longstanding Claims Conference board members who, according to an annual report, served alongside Berman on the organization’s executive committee in 2001, the year the letter was received. Merhav and Goot serve on the Claims Conference’s public information committee, which is tasked with enhancing the organization’s image.
Since the fraud was publicly disclosed in 2010, three members of the select leadership committee are on record defending the Claims Conference.