The Jewish world was rocked last week by still another scandal, one so twisted and nefarious that it simply defies belief.
In a news conference held last Tuesday, United States Attorney Preet Bharara announced that 17 people were being charged with taking part in a massive scam that defrauded some $42.5 million from the Claims Conference, an organization that assists elderly and poor Holocaust survivors.
The swindle, which allegedly began back in 1994, is said to have involved current and former Claims Conference employees who participated in the preparation, submission and approval of thousands upon thousands of falsified claims.
According to the charge sheet filed in federal court, there were cases in which the dates of birth of applicants were doctored in order to make it appear as if they had been born during or prior to World War II, thereby enabling them to falsely claim they had suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
In other instances, evidence of victimization by Hitler’s henchmen was simply made up to justify demands for restitution.
On some applications, bogus claims were made that the applicant had spent at least six months in a concentration camp, or 18 months confined in a ghetto.
What kind of human being would do such a thing?
As Bharara told reporters, “If ever there was a cause that you would hope and expect would be immune from base greed and criminal fraud, it would be the Claims Conference, which every day assists thousands of poor and elderly victims of Nazi persecution.”
“Sadly,” he added, “those victims were themselves victimized.”
To their credit, it was Claims Conference officials who first contacted law enforcement authorities after they uncovered irregularities in submissions that were made by various claimants.
And the only reason the fraudsters succeeded for so long – over some 16 years! – is because the conspiracy itself involved Claims Conference staffers who were in on it in exchange for a percentage of the payouts.
Nonetheless, it is difficult to digest what some scoundrels are capable of doing.
And it is simply unconscionable to think that Jews would do such a thing: to dishonor the real victims of the Holocaust just in order to steal a few bucks.
The Chillul Hashem – desecration of God’s name – this episode entails is even larger than the fraud itself. And the story itself reinforces many of the negative and anti-Semitic stereotypes that are already dangerously widespread.
One talkback to a news story about the bust on the New York Post website had this to say: “Behavior like this is why the Nazis whacked the Jews in the first place.”
The fact is that when Jews cheat, steal and swindle, it has ramifications far beyond the individual. Rightly or wrongly, it reflects on our community as a whole.
Moreover, this despicable act of theft could potentially have far-reaching consequences on efforts to win additional compensation in the future for Holocaust victims.
Since its founding shortly after the end of World War II, the Claims Conference has processed over 600,000 individual claims, disbursing more than $4.3 billion. The bulk of those funds came from the German government, and the Claims Conference continues to negotiate with Berlin regarding the enlargement and perpetuation of the program.
A scandal of this sort is unlikely to inspire the Germans to continue to pay into a system that was beset by theft and bereft of proper safeguards and controls. It has tarnished the just cause of providing aid to needy survivors, and left a stain that will not be easy to remove.
Sadly, this outrage is just one of many in recent years which have plagued the Jewish community, from Madoff to Agriprocessors.
The common thread running through all these incidents is, of course, greed and theft.
We all know what the oldest profession is, and it is said that politics comes in a close second. But I think a good case can be made that stealing is right up there near the top of the list as well, perhaps coming in third.
This epidemic of dishonesty needs to be nipped in the bud. We must stop burying our heads in the sand and ignoring these developments.
Lying and cheating are antithetical to Judaism and it is time for educators, religious leaders and community heads to do more to get this message across.
There is something very wrong when a community is hit time and time again by thieves and scam artists emerging from its midst.
Let the Claims Conference scandal serve as a warning: our community needs to clean up its act, and fast.
Michael Freund is founder of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), a Jerusalem-based organization that helps “lost Jews” return to Zion. His Jewish Press-exclusive column appears the third week of each month.