Why I Resigned From Claims Conference Board — And Why You Should Care

Holocaust Restitution Group Must Have Sterling Reputation

Beyond Reproach? Julius Berman, left, and other leaders of the Claims Conference have refused to acknowledge their failures, Samuel Norich writes.
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Beyond Reproach? Julius Berman, left, and other leaders of the Claims Conference have refused to acknowledge their failures, Samuel Norich writes.

By Samuel Norich

Published July 14, 2013.
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After serving for a decade on the Board of Directors of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, I resigned in protest on July 10.

The Claims Conference, as it is commonly known, was created in 1951 to secure some measure of justice for Jewish victims of Nazi persecution. Its staff of 400 administers direct compensation programs, funds charities serving Holocaust survivors, and negotiates on their behalf with banks, other companies and the German and Austrian governments. Last year alone, it disbursed $345 million to survivors and agencies charged with their care, around the world.

Samuel Norich
Nate Lavey
Samuel Norich

During 10 years on the board, I was an outspoken supporter of Julius Berman, the chairman, as he rebuffed repeated attempts by Israeli politicians and others to control or supplant the Claims Conference. I continue to believe that independence, transparency and a reputation for probity are necessary for the Claims Conference to carry out its sacred mission. But recent events and revelations led me, reluctantly, to conclude that these essential characteristics have been deeply compromised.

Thirty-one people, including 11 former Claims Conference employees, have pleaded or been found guilty of fraud in connection with false restitution claims that senior management reported to law-enforcement authorities, in 2009. What’s more, management failed to fully investigate allegations, made in an anonymous letter in 2001, that a mid-level employee had approved fraudulent applications.

That letter, containing details indicating it likely came from an insider, came to the board’s and the public’s attention only a few weeks ago, when the Forward’s Paul Berger discovered it in the trial record of three Claims Conference staffers convicted on federal charges. [As publisher and president of the Forward, I am responsible for everything it publishes, but have not been a source for its reporting, nor had any hand in its editorial judgments on the Claims Conference story. I served on the Claims Conference board as a representative not of the Forward, but rather of the Jewish Labor Committee, and I did not participate in a decision by the Claims Conference to grant the Forward $22,500 to produce a collection of filmed interviews with ten postwar Yiddish writers.]

Despite demands for an independent inquiry, Berman appointed four board members to investigate, and they, in turn, delegated the task to the Claims Conference ombudsman, Shmuel Hollander. Two of the investigating committee members disowned Hollander’s scathing report on past management practices, and the executive vice president, Greg Schneider, proffered a 21-page rebuttal.

It is clear that the leadership of the Claims Conference is unwilling to acknowledge its failures. Berman has gone to great lengths to avoid accountability for his role in 2001 – as a member of the board’s audit and executive committees and pro bono counsel to the Claims Conference – and more recently.

When it came time to elect officers at the board’s annual meeting this week, members were allowed to cast only a single up-or-down vote on a 16-person slate, preventing them from voting against, or even abstaining on, the re-election of the chairman or other individuals involved in the breakdown of control and accountability.

Berman and some of those who support his continued chairmanship posit a false conflict between the needs and interests of Holocaust survivors and the purported calumnies and sensationalism of the press. I see it differently. I stand behind and take great pride in the work of the Forward’s editors and reporters to illuminate mismanagement, lax oversight and deficient accountability in this most important Jewish organization. As Justice Louis D. Brandeis famously said, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

Some self-serving Israeli politicians and American lawyers have besieged the Claims Conference for years, accusing its leaders of corruption or worse. Those are lies. But the organization’s own ombudsman and two of its senior board members have now verified mismanagement and negligence in 2001 that allowed the costly fraud to persist for more than a decade. I regret that the board didn’t force the necessary reckoning within top leadership this week. But I believe, with complete faith, that it will yet come.

At stake is not only the continued, and crucial, flow of German reparations for material losses at the hands of the Nazis, but also the morale of hundreds of gifted, capable and devoted Claims Conference employees in Europe, Israel and the United States; the principles of transparency, accountability and integrity in communal and charitable organizations; and the sterling reputation of an organization that was, and must be, beyond reproach.

Samuel Norich is President of the Forward Association and Publisher of The Forward

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