Last month the Jewish Agency, speaking for a coalition of the Israeli government, Yad Vashem, and the Holocaust survivors’ organizations in Israel, demanded that the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) cede control of negotiations and allocations of Holocaust survivors’ assets to the Israeli government and move its headquarters to Israel because it’s the central address for Jews worldwide. While the centrality of Jerusalem and the allure of its sacred soil are not in dispute, this proposal is a pure power play that ignores survivors and their needs.
Behind the nobility of sentiments, what is at stake and in dispute is money — lots of it. In addition to the annual allocations, there is an estimated $1.7 billion in the Claims Conference kitty, a reserve established to care for Holocaust survivors in their old age.
This attempt to dominate the Claims Conference is not new. Three years ago, the then minister of finance, Benjamin Netanyahu, made the point more bluntly. In a meeting attended by Julius Berman, Israel Singer, Moshe Sanbar, Roman Kent, and Gideon Taylor, all of the Claims Conference, Netanyahu pointed his finger at Singer and reportedly said, "If you do not give Israel complete control of the Claims Conference, I will destroy you. And if I say I will destroy you, you know I will."
A few weeks later, his supporter, Isi Leibler, the former vice president of the World Jewish Congress, went to Eliot Spitzer, then attorney general of the State of New York. Soon after that, a major investigation of the World Jewish Congress and Israel Singer, who is the chief negotiator for the Claims Conference, was launched with a boom and ended last year with a whimper. Now Liebler is again nibbling at Singer, just as the Israeli government is again demanding complete control of the Holocaust survivors’ funds? only this time in public.
Why not give them control? The reasons are compelling:
Sadly, Israel has no power to negotiate for the survivors. Her standing in Europe is weak, and European governments and their populations would not consent to give money to the Israeli government or government-sponsored institutions. And Israel has government interests — legitimate and important — that override her concern for justice and even for support.
The moral standing for negotiations belongs to survivors, but even survivors cannot be effective alone. The only reason negotiations have been successful to date is precisely that the Claims Conference is an American organization that still has the backing of the American executive branch, the State Department, and Congress.
Secondly, and again sadly, Israel and the Jewish Agency have proven, through the years, that they are less than worthy caretakers, so that even Israeli survivors stand to gain more under the Claims Conference than they do from the Jewish Agency or their own government.
In ‘003, according to Hebrew University demographer Sergio della Pergola, there were 1,09’,000 Holocaust survivors — by the broadest definition of the term — worldwide. Most lived in Israel (511,000), followed by Western Europe (197,000), the United States (174,000), and the former Soviet Union (146,000).
In Israel alone, ‘006 figures estimate that 90,000 survivors live in poverty — but these are the same survivors who signed over their restitution payments to the Israeli government in the 1950s because it was promised they would be cared for! In the United States, there are at least 70,000 at or below the poverty line, and according to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, 1’5,000 live in destitution in the former Soviet Union.
The treatment of the Holocaust survivors trapped in northern Israel during the recent war was practically non-existent. (It was little better for non-survivor Israelis.) The trauma made them relive their Holocaust experience. Only a non-government institution? Amcha? directly provided for their special needs. As one woman said as she put her children and grandchildren on a train to the south, "Now I know what it felt like for my mother to put me in a Kindertransport."
The Claims Conference was not innocent in this matter. It did not respond to the crisis. It got bogged down in process. When Claims Conference treasurer Roman Kent asked for a $5 million emergency fund — the sum that Israeli experts indicated was needed — no action was taken for weeks and only a piddling sum was finally released. By then the war had ended.
Let’s consider some figures: Between ‘006-08, with the Claims Conference partial allocations (including lump sum payments to certain organizations and agencies from the Swiss Looted Assets Funds, ICHEIC [the insurance company settlements], and the German In-Home Services Fund), Israel gets about $90 million for humanitarian aid and about $6 million for Holocaust education. That includes approximately $’ million to Yad Vashem, which just completed a major overhaul and last month got $’5 million from Miriam and Sheldon Adelson of Las Vegas. American survivors get $33 million in humanitarian aid and about $’ million for Holocaust-related education. Europe, Canada, Australia — the rest of the world — get about $86 million for humanitarian aid and $5 million for Holocaust education.
In other words, Israel already gets the largest piece of the pie. And much of that is not being used to benefit survivors.
Major Israeli hospitals like Sheba, Siroka, Sourasky, and Hadassah, with multi-hundred-million dollar budgets, got survivor funds to pay for refurbishing and equipping oncology departments, nursing departments, and ophthalmology departments. Money went to social clubs around Israel with small percentages of survivors, while Amcha, the survivors’ main lifeline, got only $’ million. Air-conditioned bomb shelters are being built at old-age homes whose residents include some survivors, but if it’s home care a Holocaust survivor needs from Kupat Cholim, the Israeli government’s answer is "Sorry. No money available."
Meanwhile, in the United States there are more than ‘5,000 Holocaust survivors in poverty in the New York area alone, another ‘5,000 in Florida with no safety net, and thousands of others across America falling through the cracks or at high risk. The Israelis become apoplectic when you talk about the "Nazi victims" in Europe — especially in Eastern Europe — who require support and have few resources of their own to survive. The battle between the Jewish Agency and the JDC, the organization that cares for those elderly in Europe, is horrendous to behold.
That does not mean the Claims Conference gets off blame-free. It has its own problems to solve with the Holocaust survivors, who are grossly underrepresented and whose voices are stifled by the American Jewish organizations that seek the lion’s share of those funds.
What is needed is a good hard look at the Claims Conference by-laws, at the allocations themselves. The only perspective allowed should be to address what benefits poor Holocaust survivors the most — everywhere in this world — which was what the Claims Conference was created to do in the first place. The rest can wait. Unfortunately, it will not be long, since survivors are dying day by day.Jeanette Friedman chairs The Brenn Institute and is founding president of Second Generation North Jersey. She lives in New Milford.