After Scandal, Should Claims Conference Shift Focus to Holocaust Education?

Strategic Panel Urges Leveraging Brand Not Shutting Down

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By Uriel Heilman

Published June 19, 2014.
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(JTA) — A special panel tasked with examining the governance and strategic vision of the Claims Conference is recommending that the organization shift its long-term focus to Holocaust education and remembrance, JTA has learned.

The panel was appointed last year following a scandal involving the Claims Conference’s failure to detect a $57 million fraud scheme there that persisted until 2009. It also recommended cutting in half the size of the board’s executive committee and the number of special board committees.

The special panel did not, however, recommend any changes to the composition of the Claims Conference’s board, which critics have complained is unrepresentative because it does not include enough Israeli or survivor groups and includes too many once-robust Jewish organizations that are quite small today.

The new recommendations, outlined in two hefty documents sent to Claims Conference board members last week and this week and obtained by JTA, will go to a vote when the board holds its annual meeting in New York on July 8.

Consisting of board members and outside experts and guided by Accenture consultants, the special panel was charged with reviewing the administration, management and governance structure of the Claims Conference, which obtains Holocaust restitution and compensation from Germany and Austria. The central question the panel examined was what the Claims Conference should do after the last of the survivors dies.

Three possible courses of action were given serious consideration: shutting down; funding education and remembrance projects; or shifting its focus to general Jewish educational programming, helping victims of other genocides obtain restitution or preserving Jewish cultural sites in the former Soviet Union.

Given the Claims Conference’s successes at convincing Germany to increase its funding for survivors, the panel concluded that “to close down without attempting to leverage its position and significant experience in the service of Holocaust education and remembrance would be to miss a major opportunity.”

In an interview with JTA, the Claims Conference’s chief executive, Greg Schneider, emphasized that Holocaust education isn’t new to the Claims Conference: The organization currently funds education and remembrance to the tune of $18 million per year with money obtained from the sale of unclaimed Jewish properties in the former East Germany.

“The Claims Conference has always dealt with the consequences of the Shoah,” Schneider said of the board’s mandate for the organization. “When that meant direct payments to survivors, we did that. When that meant rebuilding communities, we did that. When that meant home care [for elderly survivors], we did that. Educating people about the Shoah and confronting Holocaust denial all deal with consequences of the Shoah. To be faithful to our mandate, we should continue to do that. And we are uniquely qualified to do so.”

The new vision for the Claims Conference hinges on the organization’s ability to get material support for it from the perpetrators of the Holocaust – namely Germany, but also Austria and companies complicit in the Nazi genocide. If that funding cannot be secured, the Claims Conference should go out of business once there are no survivors left, Schneider said.

“If we’re unable to get money from perpetrator governments, and the survivors have all died, we should close down,” he said. “We should not try to reinvent ourselves into something else.”


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