In what was billed as a “historic” challenge, five major Israeli bodies, including the government, signed a covenant Sunday to fight together for increased money and power within the international body that negotiates post-Holocaust claims, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
The heads of two Israel Holocaust survivor organizations — Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, and the Jewish Agency for Israel, which coordinates Israeli-Diaspora relations — signed the seven-point “memorandum of understanding.” Signing for the Israeli government was Rafi Eitan, who holds dual posts as the minister for retiree affairs and the minister responsible for Diaspora and social affairs.
Three of the signers were present for a press conference Sunday afternoon at the Jewish Agency’s office in Jerusalem, timed just days before the Claims Conference board of directors was to arrive here for its annual meeting.
Eitan listed the group’s threefold demands: increased representation of Israelis and Holocaust survivors on the conference’s board and committees; increased allocation of monies to Israel, and the right for the Israeli bodies to determine for themselves how much will be allocated in Israel and to whom.
Eitan took over his ministry in the spring, after running a campaign focusing on the rights of the elderly. Since then, he said that he had visited Israeli Holocaust survivors and discovered that they are not being cared for properly. “I discovered a string of failures,” he said. “Some of them are because of Israel, and some of them because of the Claims Conference.”
While acknowledging Israel’s partial responsibility for the survivors’ lack of care, Eitan and the other Israeli signers said that the care of survivors would improve if the Israeli government and local bodies were to receive more clout within the Claims Conference.
The salvo from Israel is the latest in a string of efforts to shake up the process of allocating money reclaimed through Holocaust restitution and reparations. The Claims Conference, which was founded in New York in 1951, has played a central role in overseeing this process. Recently, Holocaust survivor organizations in America have complained that they do not have enough influence over allocation of funds. The Israeli government also has made past bids for a larger role in the process.
Critics of the Claims Conference have focused on the composition of the conference board, made up of two representatives from each of the 24 organizations that founded the conference.
“Since then, there have been changes to the worldwide structure of Jewish organizations, particularly regarding the organization of the survivors themselves, and also regarding the centrality of the State of Israel as the center of world Jewry,” Eitan wrote in a November 2 letter to the respective president and chairman of the conference, Israel Singer and Julius Berman. Their reply, Eitan said, was “less than adequate.”
In a telephone interview, Berman accused the Israelis of a “lack of understanding of democracy” and of misrepresenting the facts.
“It may be difficult for these individuals to understand, but the Claims Conference is a democratic institution both in its charter and in its bylaws,” Berman said. “They can come to the board in July and propose whatever they would like, and it will be voted on in a democratic way.”
Moshe Nativ, a former Jewish Agency director general who was designated to act as the leader of the Israeli campaign, said that the difficulty with Berman’s proposal is that “we [Israelis] are not on any of the committees.”
In the letter to Berman, Eitan requested that 50% of conference bodies be made up of Israeli survivors and government representatives.
Berman countered that about one-third of the board of directors, the allocations committee and the executive committee are Israelis and about half are Holocaust survivors. He slammed the Israelis for dividing conference members into survivors and nonsurvivors, Israelis and non-Israelis.
“I’ve been running [the Claims Conference] for four years, I think,” Berman said, “and there is never an issue that divides survivors from nonsurvivors or Israelis from non-Israelis.”
At the Claims Conference’s founding, the Israeli government elected not to participate in negotiations with West Germany over reparations payments to individuals. Instead, it conducted its own negotiations with Germany, resulting in a separate, bilateral multibillion-dollar agreement for direct compensation to Israel as the heir to the Jewish people.
Today the Claims Conference oversees funds totaling almost $1 billion. The largest portion of the annual budget is designated for direct compensation payments to individual survivors — $361 million in 2005. Social welfare programs as well as heirs to property, Swiss bank accounts and insurance policies also received monies.
About $90 million a year is allocated to Jewish and Holocaust-related organizations and institutions. The conference said that Israeli organizations and institutions receive about 55% of this amount. Israelis said the figure is slightly below 50%.
The Israeli groups are demanding that the percentage be raised to 60%, because “most of the survivors are living in Israel,” said Noach Flug, chairman of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors.
Most demographic studies show that the percentage of survivors living in Israel stands at about 55%.
While all five Israeli bodies agreed that they need more say and more money, it became obvious at their press conference that the people behind the table did not agree on how the funds should be distributed.
The Claims Conference’s bylaws require that 80% of the allocations money coming from uninherited Jewish East German assets go to organizations and institutions aiding survivors. The other 20% is for Holocaust education and “legacy” activities, including medical institutions. This 20% has been a thorn in the side of survivor organizations, which say that the welfare of survivors should take precedence over educational programs.
“The survivors are in the last phase of their lives, and in the next 15 years I doubt any will still be alive,” said Eitan, the government minister. “The money needs to be allocated differently. Better to give the Holocaust survivors their due while they are alive than to leave money for when they are gone.”
A different tune came from Ze’ev Bielski, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. He said that Holocaust education programs actually needed more money. He also called for more money for Israeli hospitals.
Bielski complained that when he asked for aid for hospitals after the recent war, he got too little, too late. “What did I ask for from the Claims Conference?” he said bitterly. “To renovate three hospitals damaged very badly by the war.” Bielski also called for moving conference headquarters to Israel. “There is no reason for it to be in New York,” he told reporters.
Bielski’s position came under criticism at the press conference from Israeli Holocaust survivor and journalist Raul Teitelbaum, whose book, The Biological Solution,” about the history of individual compensations to survivors, will be published in Hebrew next year.
“The structure of the Claims Conference was not established arbitrarily by the heads of the conference,” said Teitelbaum, 75, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen. “It was an agreement between the State of Israel and Nahum Goldmann [then-president of the World Jewish Congress and first head of the Claims Conference] that determined that Israel would not have any representation in the Claims Conference because Israel represents Israeli survivors and the conference represents the Jewish people living outside.”
Later, when speaking to the Forward, Teitelbaum said that Israel began demanding a say in the Claims Conference about 10 years ago. It was a time when the unification of Germany was bringing millions of new dollars in compensation for looted Jewish properties in East Germany that previously had been unavailable. Shortly afterward, it was established that Swiss banks and foreign insurance companies had withheld money belonging to victims of the Holocaust, leading to multibillion-dollar settlements. The Israeli prime minister at the time, Benjamin Netanyahu, made the first call for a change in the conference bylaws to give Israel more money and more control, and to move the headquarters to Jerusalem. Later calls came under the premiership of Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon.
“Israel woke up 50 years later, because the Claims Conference [now] has money,” Teitelbaum said. “Now [Israelis] want the Claims Conference to recognize ‘the centrality of Israel.’”
Indeed, the phrase “centrality of Israel” was used repeatedly at the press conference. “The centrality of the Jewish people is here in Zion,” Bielski said, “and we think it’s about time for a serious revision of the way the Claims Conference and the organizations that are in it operate.”
In recent months, it has been the Israeli government that has received criticism for its treatment of survivors. In particular, a few months ago, the Fund for the Social Welfare of Holocaust Survivors in Israel almost closed because it did not have enough money. The government provides only 5% of its budget.
Despite all its demands, the newly formed group conceded that it might fail, as those who tried before it have.
“We are standing before a very stubborn organization that is dependent on organizations that will likely give support to the continuation of the organization as it is,” Bielski said.