Leaders of the coalition announced Sunday that they were launching a unified effort to get the Claims Conference to recognize the centrality of Israel in its distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars in unclaimed Holocaust-era assets. The new public relations campaign was prompted by the Claims Conference's "paltry" response to emergency aid requests from Israel during its summertime war in Lebanon, Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielski said.
"Only one agency did not respond when I asked for one-time emergency disbursements during the war in Lebanon this summer: the Claims Conference," Bielski charged. The conference's response arrived only after the war, he said, and it was "too little and too late."
The Claims Conference denied aid requests from the Jewish Agency for hospitals and protected rooms in northern Israel, agency spokesman Yarden Vitikay said, committing only $100,000 after the war to a program for terror victims -- this, from what is perhaps the richest Jewish organization in the world. By comparison, the United Jewish Communities umbrella group raised $320 million for northern Israel from its member federations.
Members of the Israeli coalition, including Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev, now are demanding that the Claims Conference boost Israeli representation on its board, transfer most of its operations to Israel and increase the speed and quantity of disbursements to Israeli Holocaust survivors.
This Israeli campaign represents the latest in a long string of efforts to break the Claims Conference's virtual monopoly of control over hundreds of millions of dollars in Holocaust restitution disbursements. In recent years, various survivor groups, advocates, community leaders and Israeli officials have tried to wrest some control over the restitution process from the conference's board, with only limited success.
In response to Sunday's announcement, Claims Conference communications director Hillary Kessler-Godin issued a statement saying, "Issues concerning governance or structure, as well as proposed changes to policy, can be brought to the board of directors of the organization, which meets in July every year."
Kessler-Godin said the conference "has been outstandingly successful in negotiating for Holocaust-era compensation on behalf of Holocaust survivors worldwide in recovering property, in assisting Nazi victims and in educating future generations about the lessons of the Shoah."
The Claims Conference has allocated emergency payments of $3.2 million to 13,000 needy Nazi victims in northern Israel, Kessler-Godin said. These are direct payments to assist victims of Nazism affected by the war. The group also recently held information sessions for Nazi victims in Israel's North concerning their eligibility for payments and assistance from various sources of Holocaust compensation and restitution.
In addition, the Claims Conference has just allocated $1.7 million to build protected rooms in sheltered housing complexes primarily housing victims of Nazism. The Claims Conference is also preparing future projects to assist hospitals in border areas, Kessler-Godin said.
Under agreements dating back to its formation in 1951, the New York-based Claims Conference -- formally, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany -- is the lead organization charged with recovering Jewish war-era assets from Germany, and its successor organization has become the legal heir of unclaimed Jewish properties from East Germany.
The value of the assets recovered so far from the former East Germany numbers in the billions of dollars. Every year, the Claims Conference distributes approximately $90 million of that money to organizations of its choice according to a formula whereby 80 percent goes to groups that provide services to survivors and 20 percent goes to Holocaust education and documentation projects.
Projects range from soup kitchens in Russia run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to a Tel Aviv-based Yiddish theater troupe that performs for survivors.
In the past, critics like the National Association of Jewish Child Holocaust Survivors' Leo Rechter and the World Jewish Congress' former executive vice president, Elan Steinberg, questioned why grants were going to Birthright Israel, Yiddish theater and the installation of sprinkler systems in Israeli nursing homes rather than to needy survivors.
This time, the Israeli critics -- including groups that are on the Claims Conference's board -- are focusing not on the types of programs that receive funding, but on the geographic distribution of funds and the composition and location of the body that makes funding decisions.
The Israelis say that they, rather than a multinational board dominated by American Jews, should decide how their share of the money is spent.
"We are a nation of victims of the Holocaust," said Noah Flug, chairman of the Center of Survivor Organizations in Israel. "Today we have no say. We don't even have autonomy in deciding how the money is distributed. Neither Israelis nor survivors are making these decisions. Things are decided for us, and without us."
Israeli Minister for Pensioner Affairs Rafi Eitan -- the erstwhile Mossad field officer who captured Nazi fugitive Adolf Eichmann -- said the Claims Conference has failed survivors.
Eitan visited particularly harsh criticism on the pace of disbursements, saying money is being hoarded by the Claims Conference rather than being released to survivors while they're still alive.
"In another 15 years, there won't be Holocaust survivors around anymore," Eitan said. "The Claims Conference works according to its own rules, but the money belongs only to the Holocaust survivors."
The Claims Conference's spokeswoman declined to respond to specific charges.
Eitan said the fulcrum of the problem lies in the composition of the Claims Conference's board, which has not changed to keep up with the changing Jewish world. Aside from the addition of three board members, two of them survivor groups added in 1988, there have been no significant changes in the composition of the Claims Conference's board in the 55 years since it was created. Eitan's critiques echoed those described by critics in a special JTA investigative series in 2004.
The Israelis say such distortions should be rectified -- by giving Israel more control. "I don't know if they know it, but the center of the Jewish world is here in Zion," Bielski told reporters at a press conference Sunday at the Jewish Agency's headquarters in Jerusalem. "We will continue this campaign until they give us our rightful seats at the table. This is our historic responsibility.
"Our struggle today is over the centrality of the State of Israel," Bielski said.