Policy Body: Shoah Funds All Must Go To Survivors

By Eli Kintisch; With Reporting by Nacha Cattan in New York.

Published February 28, 2003, issue of February 28, 2003.
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BALTIMORE — In a stinging critique of the main international Jewish body that oversees Holocaust restitution funds, delegates to the annual meeting of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs called in a resolution Monday for “all funds” collected on behalf of Holocaust survivors to be disbursed solely to aid needy survivors.

Currently the world body, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, devotes some 80% of its discretionary funds to helping needy Holocaust survivors, who number more than 500,000, according to JCPA estimates. The remainder of the funds is used for Holocaust remembrance, education and documentation efforts.

“Programs of research, documentation and education of the Holocaust” should be disbursed only “after all the present and anticipated needs of such Holocaust survivors have been fully met,” the resolution stated.

The resolution was adopted at the annual plenum of JCPA, a policy consultation body composed of 13 national Jewish organizations and 123 local community relations councils. With an expected war with Iraq looming and the situation in Israel as tenuous as it was when last year’s plenum convened, the intensity of the debate over the use of the funds took many Jewish organization officials at the plenum by surprise. But recently published reports on widespread need among survivor populations in Florida and Boston, coupled with a plenum discussion on the issue, made their plight the hot topic at the conference.

The resolution, passed by a voice vote, does not refer to the Claims Conference by name, but the JCPA’s call is expected to put considerable public pressure on the conference. While JCPA is essentially an advisory body, the resolution will be a test of the council’s influence.

While the Claims Conference’s president, Rabbi Israel Singer, said his organization would “seriously consider” the JCPA resolution, the headstrong top restitution negotiator also said, “We’ll take their advice into account, just as we’ll take into account those who say [funding for welfare and education] should be divided 50/50.”

Singer said the JCPA and other Jewish organizations should also reexamine their budgets to account for aid to needy survivors. “Why do federations spend money while survivors need home care?” he asked. Singer said the executive committee of the Claims Conference would discuss the resolution at a meeting February 26. He added, however, if we decided today we were never going to spend another nickel on Holocaust education we would do something that” may in the future be judged as a mistake.

The Jewish Labor Committee’s executive director, Avi Lyon, a member of the Claims Conference board who led opposition to the resolution at the plenum, questioned whether the JCPA, as an umbrella organization, should appear to be dictating one group’s policy. “Ultimately, the Claims Conference answers to its board,” Lyon said. “I don’t think we’re here to debate, [for example], the budget of United Jewish Communities.”

JCPA chair Michael Bohnen said that the resolution “could have an immediate impact.”

National agencies such as the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, Orthodox Union and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism voted against the resolution. Nearly every local community relations councils supported the measure.

Lyon told the conference that of the five funds administered by the Claims Conference, only one, drawn from Jewish property restitution in what was formerly East Germany, has discretionary money. Of that money, he said, a minimum of 80% is used for needy Holocaust survivors, with the rest devoted to education, research or remembrance efforts. Only 2% of all funds collected in total by the Claims Conference, he said, is allocated to projects other than those assisting survivors.

Mark Talisman, founding vice chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, disputed Lyon’s numbers. “The 2% is a lie. It is disingenuous,” he said. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, like Yad Vashem and other Holocaust memorial institutions, receives grants from the conference. “The grants they give are wonderful,” Talisman said, “except when lives are at stake.”

In introducing its amendment, the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council yielded time to Holocaust survivor Joe Sachs from Miami, who delivered a heartfelt plea on behalf of needy survivors to a silent room.

“Many do not come forward by their own accord. They suffer in silence,” he said. “Education should be funded by the general community.”

Other resolutions that were passed at the JCPA plenum included one calling for a prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients, as well as a measure supporting a “universal access national health plan.”

In a separate development, the International Commission on Holocaust-Era Insurance Claims announced that it plans to distribute $132 million over the next 10 years to aid needy survivors, and asked the Claims Conference to implement the initial distribution.

A resolution warily applauding Evangelical Christians for their support of Israel prompted a vigorous debate before passing 55% to 45% with a handful of abstentions.

“[O]ur interaction or partnership with Evangelical Christians on issues of common interest should not in any way affect the positions or actions of the Jewish community on issues on which we disagree,” the resolution stated.

After a heated discussion of whether or not to criticize the Bush administration for alleged violations of civil liberties, a balanced resolution supporting the administration’s anti-terrorism efforts passed by a voice vote.

“We are particularly concerned about the treatment of United States citizens, including questions of indefinite detentions, denial of legal counsel and trials that are closed in their entirety,” the resolution stated. “At the same time, JCPA believes that these valued protections must be applied in a balanced manner in light of what is reasonable under current circumstances, and in light of the necessity to ensure the security of all Americans.”

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