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September 29, 2016 / 26 Elul, 5776
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The Claims Conference Controversy – In Context


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We take it as a sure sign of the times that the recent stunning news that the Claims Conference had negotiated a four-year $1 billion infusion of funds from the German government to aid Holocaust survivors has been largely overshadowed by criticism that those leading the conference mishandled an internal investigation into the embezzlement of $57 million by some employees over a fifteen-year period.

This is not to suggest that the theft of $57 million is an insignificant thing or that those who have been key to the conference’s achievements should be exempt from criticism or inquiry. It is to lament, though, that public discourse seems more and more driven by those with narrow perspectives and a penchant for “gotcha” journalism.

A bit of history is instructive.

Since 1952 the Claims Conference (its full name is the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany) has served as the principal Jewish community liaison with the German government and, in fact, was established to officially negotiate on behalf of Jews around the world who were victims of Nazi persecution. In that capacity, it has negotiated agreements for German aid in a broad array of critical categories for survivors.

In recent years the Claims Conference has also negotiated the establishment of several special programs including monthly payments to approximately 47,000 survivors worldwide, including some 9,800 in the United States. There is also the hardship fund, which provides for one-time payments to certain Holocaust victims not eligible for other compensation. There is a welfare services program to help survivors with homecare (in the countries of the former Soviet Union, the Claims Conference is the sole provider of homecare services to Holocaust survivors). A Claims Conference program makes grants to institutions working in Holocaust research and education in order to ensure that the world never forgets.

All the money in the world will not adequately compensate for what was visited on even one person. Still, agreements negotiated by the Claims Conference with German and Austrian government officials and industry leaders in its six decades have resulted in compensation for more that 500,000 Holocaust survivors and today approximately 97,000 survivors continue to receive payments. The conference has brought a staggering total of $70 billion into the everyday lives of survivors.

With this huge infrastructure of assistance as context, particularly the newly negotiated $1 billion, it is hard to understand why some are focusing exclusively on accusations of mismanagement – particularly when several conference employees went to jail for embezzlement following a federal investigation materially aided by the assistance of the very conference leadership now being attacked.

Further, the Claims Conference has initiated a new internal investigation into how the embezzlers were able to conceal their crimes. All the more reason for not allowing the thefts to unfairly define one of our more important communal efforts.

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