Attorney Julius Berman, embattled chairman of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, struck back at his and the organization’s critics on Thursday, May 30, in a lengthy memorandum to his board of directors. (The Jewish Standard obtained a copy of the memorandum later that day. It is posted on our website,www.jstandard.com. Claims Conference chair’s memo raises questions about critics’ motives )
In recent weeks, the Claims Conference has been under heavy fire for allegedly ignoring for nearly a decade warnings that the organization was being defrauded from within. During a 17-year span, employees and their outside collaborators managed to redirect $57 million to their own pockets. Berman’s memorandum does not ascribe motives to his critics, but the totality of the evidence he presents suggests that self-promotion, rather than genuine concern, was at the heart of their criticisms. The suggestion was only heightened over last weekend as those whom he singled out in his memorandum offered their own responses. Perhaps, however, these should be more accurately described as non-responsive responses.
Ever since its founding in October 1951, the Claims Conference has been regarded as the sole legitimate partner for any negotiations involving issues of compensation and restitution for the victims of the Shoah. As reported in last week’s Jewish Standard, 68 years after the end of the Holocaust, the conference in mid-May was still breaking new ground in its agreements with the Federal Republic of Germany. The latest pact includes an agreement for approximately $1 billion for eligible victims in need of serious home care – a major new benefit for a population that is aging itself out of existence. Conference negotiators also got Germany to add as many as 3,000 additional names to the compensation rolls through a redefinition of the word “ghetto” to include so-called “open ghettoes,” meaning areas not walled in but subject to the same restrictions as those ghettoes hidden behind walls.
Berman, a Yeshiva University-ordained rabbi and a partner in the law firm of Kaye Scholer LLP, assumed the chairmanship of the conference’s board in April 2002, following the death of Rabbi Israel Miller, its longtime president, who also chaired both its board and executive committee. After Miller died the position was divided into three separate posts, with Berman assuming the new role of board chairman.
In recent weeks, Berman has been repeatedly attacked for misleading the board he supposedly chaired in 2001 regarding an anonymous letter warning of the ongoing fraud. As Berman noted in his memorandum to the board on Thursday, his position did not exist in 2001 and he held no formal office at that time. His chairmanship began months after the anonymous letter from what turned out to be a fictitious organization was received by the Claims Conference.
Although that is part of the public record, it is a fact being ignored by his and the organization’s critics, including several prominent Jewish news outlets. Berman focused on that in his lengthy defense.
Until now, Berman has been reluctant to speak out, because, he said, he did not want to influence in any way an ongoing internal investigation into how Claims Conference officials dealt with the allegations of fraud over the years since 2001. The organization finally did uncover evidence of wrongdoing, at which point it immediately brought in the United States Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate. He is speaking out now, Berman wrote to the board, because “the continuous repetition of the falsehoods and misleading statements about my actions will be accepted as truths over time, and the results of the committee, which will appropriately address the issues, will come too late to undo the damage.”
The deciding factor in writing his memorandum, Berman said, “was the headline on the lead article on the front page of the Forward last weekend.”
The headline read, “Claims Conference Chair Knew of Fraud Allegations 8 Years Earlier.”
“I no longer have the luxury of sitting back and allowing such unvarnished lies to be published about me without responding,” Berman wrote. “It would be simply unfair to my family, but, even more, to the people throughout the world who have befriended me during over 50 years of service in the communal Jewish world and, hopefully, have an opinion of my honesty and integrity, as well as that of the Claims Conference, that would not countenance such alleged misconduct on my part.”
Berman said that the allegation that he never disclosed the letter to the board was used “as a springboard for what may be the longest editorial the Forward has ever published, titled: ‘A Moral Responsibility.’ The simple undisputed and indisputable fact is that I was not the chairman of the Conference in 2001. In fact, the office of ‘Chair’ wasn’t even created until a year later, after the death of [Rabbi Israel Miller,] the then-president of the conference.”
In other words, he wrote, the Forward editorial was “talking about a chairman who doesn’t even exist. Whether this reflects on the journalistic competency of the paper or on its journalistic integrity is for the Forward management to deal with. All I can deal with is the truth.”
In its website response to Berman, the Forward noted that “Berman was a board member who served that year  on two important and relevant committees: the Control (or audit) Committee and the Executive Committee.” The inference is that he still was culpable for withholding information.
Yet the response appears to engage in circular reasoning. If the “Claims Conference Chair Knew of Fraud Allegations 8 Years Earlier,” but withheld the information from the board, and Berman was on the board but not its chair, how was he supposed to have known about something he and his colleagues were not told about? (The Forward’s response is available at http://forward.com/articles/177776).
Berman did find out about the letter, however, because as its unpaid counsel, he was asked by conference officials to investigate the matter. He assigned this task to Kaye Scholer staff. It was the second such investigation the Claims Conference initiated; the first was undertaken by its office in Germany. Neither investigation found any evidence at the time to support the anonymous allegations, however.
In his memorandum, Berman began by tracing the history of his involvement with the Claims Conference – he was recruited “sometime in or around 1995.” He then lashed out at his detractors.
Among the more blistering rejoinders related to Isi Leibler, one of the most outspoken critics of the Claims Conference. Leibler, an Australian, is onetime chair of the World Jewish Congress’ governing board. He is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post and maintains both a personal blog and an extensive email list. Leibler’s brief, wrote Berman, was a purely personal one.
“I noticed recently that in one of Leibler’s columns, he wrote that he commenced attacking the Claims Conference in 2007 and he’s already written 21 articles…,” Berman wrote. “I feel I should respond to so many that have asked why he is so obsessed with us. Unfortunately, all I can do on this score is to tell you about my only encounter with Leibler. It took place in New York sometime in the mid 2000’s after he was forced out of the World Jewish Congress, and I was elected chairman of the Claims Conference.”
Leibler was in New York and asked to meet with Berman at the St. Regis Hotel in midtown.
“While we were seated at a table in the St. Regis, each with a cup of coffee, he explained why he wanted to meet with me. He said that he was out to get Israel Singer, our then president [and at the time the WJC’s head professional, and presumably the man who forced Leibler out of the organization], and he would be relentless in going after him, but he wanted me to know that his target was Singer and he had nothing against either me or the Claims Conference.”
Berman also wrote that Leibler “gave me a dossier about an inch thick, all of which, he said, related to Singer,” but that he never read its contents. As a result, he wrote, he could not say why Leibler was out to get Singer.
In an interview with the Jerusalem Post published on Sunday, Leibler called Berman’s response “preposterous.”
“I find it ironic,” Leibler said, “that Berman would choose to attack me for disclosing the financial irregularities of the WJC which were proven to be correct. The fact that when I approached him to warn him about the allegations against Israel Singer, the then-Claims Conference president, and that he simply chose to ignore them – even after the results of the investigation of the New York attorney general and Singer had been dismissed by the WJC – speaks volumes about his moral compass,” Leibler said.
Leibler’s response is interesting in that he responds to a charge Berman did not make in his memorandum. Berman, in fact, said nothing about Leibler’s dismissal from the World Jewish Congress other than referencing it to establish a time frame, and certainly did not criticize him for exposing any wrongdoing within the WJC. The criticism that “speaks volumes of [Berman’s] moral compass” does not exist. The Jerusalem Post, in its article, did not ask Leibler to explain the inconsistency.
The response also suggests that Berman was being a bit disingenuous himself regarding why Leibler wanted “to get Israel Singer,” because the former WJC official told the Israel daily newspaper that his reasons were the subject of the meeting.
In his memorandum, Berman also singled out former United States Ambassador to Austria Ronald S. Lauder for what he called a “mysterious second letter” that was leaked to the media. Lauder is president of the WJC.
“I should note that my dealings with Ronald Lauder have always been on the highest gentlemanly level,” Berman wrote to the board. “I’ve always admired his dedication to rebuilding the shattered Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, as reflected in the time, attention and substantial resources devoted to that cause.”
That made the “mysterious second letter” even more perplexing, Berman wrote. He prefaced it by quoting the full text of the only letter he received from Lauder. Its tone was respectful and benign, and in polite terms requested information regarding the anonymous 2001 letter.
It concluded, “Please let us have the answers to these questions at your earliest convenience so that we can in turn communicate them to our constituencies. With best regards….”
In his response to Lauder, also quoted in full in the memorandum, Berman noted that another, far more aggressively worded and accusatorial letter was quoted by Leibler in his May 19, 2013, column in the Jerusalem Post, which also “was sent to his extensive e-mail list throughout the world.”
“Candidly, Ronald, I have no idea what Leibler is talking about,” Berman wrote to the WJC president. “The only letter I received from you is the one I referred to above, dated May 17.
“Unfortunately, it gets worse,” he told Lauder. “Second, in the Jerusalem Post issue of May 20, under the provocative headline ‘WJC to probe ‘Claims Conference Fraud cover-up,’ a Jerusalem Post reporter starts off his report as follows: ‘In a letter obtained by Post, WJC head Lauder instructs new [WJC] CEO to appoint task force on issue…. Lauder made the request in a letter to Berman and Schneider on Friday.’
“Again, I found this report puzzling, not only because none of [what was contained in] the Jerusalem Post report was contained in the letter you sent me, but even more disconcerting, the letter I received from you did not even suggest a ‘cover-up,’ which might in any way justify such a provocative headline.’
“So you will appreciate, Ronald, my curiosity about this second letter to me that I never received….”
In response, a WJC spokesman told the Jerusalem Post that the “mysterious second letter” was actually an email sent by Lauder to Isi Leibler, and that the letter cited by the Post was that email. Rather than serving as a clarification, however, the revelation only sharpens the implied criticism of Lauder, who must have known that Leibler would publish the e-mail.
A third person singled out by Berman was Natan Sharansky, who chairs the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel and serves as first vice president of the Claims Conference. Sharansky sent a letter to Berman asking for an independent investigation into the fraud and how it was handled. That letter and Berman’s response are also included in the memorandum.
“Natan, I must admit total puzzlement with respect to your suggestion,” Berman wrote to Sharansky. “As first vice-president of our organization, you are privy to all our board mailings and are welcomed to all the board and executive meetings, so you must be aware that we had two of the most independent public entities in the world handling the investigation of the ’embezzlement of funds’ – the United States Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Is it even possible to identify more public, independent, and effective bodies than these?”
More to the point, Berman told Sharansky, was that this letter was made public “before the ‘ink was dry,'” and “without first giving me the courtesy of an opportunity to reply.”
A JAFI spokesman had no comment when approached by the Jerusalem Post.
Berman wrote to the board, “Now, you may understand a bit of my frustration to repeatedly read, especially in the press, these inflammatory falsehoods. I guess that’s the price one must pay for being involved with the Jewish community.”
In the end, however, it is the work of the Claims Conference that may suffer the most because of the misinformation campaign, Berman wrote, “including our relationship with the German government, and its willingness to continue and increase funding to care for the old, poor, and increasingly infirm survivors in more than 40 countries.”