JERUSALEM — The Israeli government is demanding a dramatically increased role in running the agency that administers Holocaust-era reparations and restitution payments, in what government leaders frankly acknowledged was an effort to direct a larger share of restitution funds toward Israel.
In a blunt and sometimes confrontational meeting here last week between Israeli Cabinet ministers and officials of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the Israeli leaders said they were seeking “fair” representation — some cited a figure of 50% — on the conference’s governing bodies. Participants said the Israelis strongly hinted that they would obtain the representation with or without the cooperation of the existing conference leadership.
Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to a participant who spoke on condition of anonymity, “came in and said, ‘Guys, this game is over. The days when you were doing whatever you wanted to and basically were going to throw us a couple of crumbs — those days are over. We now want to be part of everything that goes on. And either it’s going to happen nicely, or it’s going to happen not nicely, because we are going to get it whatever way it is.
The meeting was convened by Israel’s minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs, Natan Sharansky, and included Netanyahu, Health Minister Danny Naveh and Meir Sheetrit, a minister-without-portfolio assigned to the Finance Ministry. The Israelis told the Claims Conference leaders that Israel had been shortchanged in the distribution of unclaimed Holocaust-era funds, and that it was the duty of the Claims Conference to care for needy Israeli survivors who were suffering as a result of Israeli government budget cuts.
In a series of exchanges that some participants described as “rude,” Israeli officials questioned the right of the Claims Conference to represent the Jewish people, insisted that Israel was the legitimate spokesman for survivors worldwide and asserted Israel’s right to use Holocaust restitution money for purposes such as defense and education in addition to care for aging survivors.
Afterward, several participants expressed surprise at the Israelis’ blunt tone. “The Claims Conference is an apolitical organization, and it should stay this way,” said conference treasurer Roman Kent, a New York businessman. “The moment we will start to take in political entities as members, it will diminish its usefulness both in the negotiations and the proper allocations.”
In a separate but parallel move, Sharansky has written to the U.S. federal judge overseeing the class action case against the Swiss banking industry, urging that Israel be given a greater role in deciding the future distribution of unclaimed funds from the $1.25 billion settlement.
Until now some $185 million in unclaimed Swiss funds has been used for care of needy Jewish survivors, with 75% going to survivors in the former Soviet Union, where poverty is considered greatest. The judge, Edward Korman of the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, has declared a December 31 deadline for public comment on the distribution of future funds, which could eventually total more than $500 million.
The chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Sallai Meridor, and the Claims Conference’s president, Rabbi Israel Singer, were scheduled to meet with Korman December 3. Meridor was expected to ask that Israel be given a significant role in deciding how to distribute any unclaimed funds from the existing $800 million pot established to settle Swiss bank account claims, according to a well-placed source. Singer told the Forward he would ask Korman to “take into consideration not only Israel but also the United States.”
In his October 22 letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Forward, Sharansky asked for more time to make Israel’s case, saying it would be “highly inappropriate” for the court to “decide public moral issues of global Jewish importance and consequence without Israel’s central and active participation.”
Sharansky denied in an interview that his government was trying to solve its own budget problems with survivors’ funds. “It is unfair to say that,” he told the Forward. “The government had to cut everything, and conditions for everybody became much worse, but we are not cutting for Shoah survivors. But we don’t want a situation where the Shoah survivors who need hospital treatment will stand in line for up to one year, which is the situation today. So we don’t say put it in our budget. We say that in this difficult situation, we don’t want it to become worse also for Shoah survivors.”
Instead, Sharansky said, the Claims Conference should redirect a larger share of its humanitarian assifunding to programs in Israel.
The Claims Conference was founded in 1952 to negotiate Holocaust reparations agreements with Germany on behalf of the world’s Jewish communities. It is an alliance of 24 Jewish organizations from a dozen countries, including Israel.
The conference currently oversees the distribution of funds from German and Austrian restitution agreements and has been designated by the Brooklyn court as one of the two main agencies distributing Swiss settlement funds to Jewish survivors.
Its largest pool of funds, from the sale of restored Jewish properties in the former East Germany, currently produces about $90 million per year for humanitarian programs, half of them in Israel.
Several conference leaders questioned the wisdom of the Israeli government attempting to undermine an organization that has been recognized in German and international law as the voice of the worldwide Jewish community.
“The German legislation mentions the Claims Conference as the official representative of the Jewish people,” said the chairman of the conference’s executive committee, Moshe Sanbar, a former governor of the Bank of Israel. “The Claims Conference is the legal heir of all the heirless assets in Germany. If the Israeli government starts to hurt the Claims Conference, the government will hurt the cause of the Jewish people. Only for money? I don’t understand it, and I don’t think it’s good for anyone, especially not against an organization which is very, very cooperative with the government.”
The sharpest exchange at last week’s meeting, several participants said, was between Sheetrit and the chairman of the Claims Conference, New York attorney Julius Berman.
In the exchange, confirmed by both men in separate interviews, Sheetrit said at least half the members of the Claims Conference board should be Israeli government representatives. Berman challenged him, saying: “Who chose you to make the decision in the name of the survivors? We are the only people who can make it in the name of the survivors.”
Sheetrit said he replied: “But we have been elected by the Jewish people of Israel, democratically, to govern and to make the decisions on behalf of the people of Israel. Can you tell me, who elected you? And when?”
Berman countered, “You are not representing the survivors.” Sheetrit replied: “Excuse me, most of the survivors are living in Israel.”
According to Berman, Sheetrit “then said flatly that the government of Israel wants to use the money for various purposes including security, education, and defense, and I said, in no uncertain terms, ‘Then we have nothing to discuss’ because this money has to be used only for survivors. I told him: ‘Your real fight is not between the government and the Claims Conference leadership, your fight is with the survivors. You want to use the money for purposes other than for survivors.’”
The actual number of living survivors is a matter of intense dispute. One recent study, by Hebrew University demographer Sergio Della Pergola, found 1,092,000 survivors worldwide, of whom 46.8%, or 511,000, live in Israel. Another recent study, by Jacob Ukeles, a New York-based demographic researcher and policy consultant, found 688,000 survivors worldwide, with 38.5%, or 265,000, living in Israel. Both studies found about 16% of all survivors living in the United States.
Conference leaders said that despite the harshness of the exchange, they would try to reach an understanding with the Israelis.
“This week was a kind of sobering week for all of us,” said Singer, the conference’s president. “Some may not agree with everything that was said by all of the ministers, but they know that we can’t ignore it. I don’t think that the substance of the issue is something that can be swept under the rug. We didn’t wait for a Jewish state for 2,000 years to ignore a majority of the ministers in Israel who deal with this subject. The question is, how do we integrate their thinking into our process?”