Last May, The Jewish Week published an Editorial (“Sins of Omission at The Times”) complaining about The New York Times’ failure, in publishing a two-part series on abuse in the ultra-Orthodox community, to credit The Jewish Week for taking the lead in reporting on these issues, calling the Times’ failure to give appropriate credit “deeply unethical.” That Editorial referred to a letter from The Jewish Week to the public editor, or ombudsman, of The Times complaining about this omission.
The Times’ ombudsman responded in The Times, essentially calling the complaint justified.
What was indispensable there was that The Times had an ombudsman to whom such complaints can be addressed. Now, it is time for The Jewish Week to do likewise.
A brief review of the treatment from May-July by The Jewish Week of the Claims Conference (“CC”) demonstrates that the paper repeatedly failed to meet its responsibility for accuracy and at times placed into question its journalistic integrity. Most of this coverage concerned the “2001 letter” received by the CC in Germany from a fictitious organization with no return address alleging that many CC employees or their relatives were approved for grants administered by the CC who were allegedly ineligible to receive such grants and citing five instances of such approvals. Below are several examples of the paper’s coverage of this issue, which show that the need for an ombudsman for this paper is clear.
False Headlines — The lead article in the July 5 issue has the following screaming headline: “Under Pressure, Claims Conference Officials Alter Meeting Agenda.”
That headline is simply false. The meeting agenda was never altered. Had The Jewish Week checked the agenda that was distributed prior to the meeting, it would have immediately noticed that the Report of the Select Leadership Committee (“SLC”), which incorporated the Ombudsman’s Report concerning the 2001 letter as an appendix, was listed at the very top of the agenda. Further, The Jewish Week already knew that the ombudsman’s findings concerning the 2001 letter were to be a part of the SLC report as, in the very same article, there is a quote from Reuven Merhav, the chairman of the SLC: “We are now finalizing our report, which includes the findings of the ombudsman.”
While there was a reference towards the bottom of the agenda to the “Report of the Ombudsman,” that was simply to the Annual Report given by the ombudsman describing what he did all year, similar to other annual reports listed in that section of the agenda. The plan (as evidenced by the agenda) was always that the SLC Report, which included the Ombudsman’s Report regarding the 2001 Letter, would be discussed on the first day of the conference’s two-day meeting.
False Facts — The July 5 article referenced above also states:
“Following the convictions [of those perpetrating the fraud], two Conference board members, Ronald Lauder, president of the [WJC], and Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, publicly called for independent investigations into how the [CC] handled the fraud. But Berman decided instead to ask Merhav and three other board members to do their own investigation.”
There are several mistakes here: First, while Lauder asked certain questions on May 17 regarding the handling of the 2001 letter, he did not ask for an independent investigation. In fact, in a June 4 article, The Jewish Week stated that “Lauder has not asked for an independent investigation.” Second, while Sharansky, in a May 20 letter, did request an independent committee be established, that letter was written after Merhav was asked to head the SLC. Third, the SLC was not asked “to do their own investigation” into “how the [CC] handled the fraud” but rather to formulate an appropriate course of action for the conference with respect to the issues surrounding the 2001 letter. In connection therewith, the SLC asked the Ombudsman to undertake a fact-finding investigation.
Missing Information — Throughout its coverage concerning the 2001 letter, The Jewish Week failed to mention the following important fact: The $57 million stolen from two funds administered by the CC was stolen from the German government, not from survivors, who did not suffer from any diminution of funds and services due to the money stolen.
False and Misleading Editorial — The paper’s Editorial (“Change at the Claims Conference,” July 5) describes the 2001 letter as “an anonymous letter to the [CC] detailing the fraud that was sent to its leadership, and essentially dismissed.” The letter could have been more accurately described as an unsigned letter from a fictitious organization sent to the CC office in Germany detailing five instances where allegedly ineligible CC employees or their relatives were approved for grants. Further, nobody genuinely contends that the letter was “essentially dismissed.”
The Editorial also states that the organizations that are members of the CC Board have a “reputation of being a rubber stamp for the [CC] leadership.” That is simply untrue. Critics who would prefer the CC conducted business in accordance with such critics’ dictates may say that, but those who know anything about the CC board members — which include AJC, Board of Deputies of British Jews, CRIF (representing French Jewry), B’nai B’rith International, Executive Council of Australian Jewry, South African Jewish Board of Deputies and World Union of Progressive Judaism — know that it is completely false.
The Editorial also asserts that “[a]llegations of a cover-up must be disproven.” While there were board members that wanted to know how the CC responded to the 2001 letter, including whether the board was informed of it, the tale of “allegations of a cover-up” was a press fabrication.
Second, the notion that one must “disprove” allegations of a cover-up is ridiculous. How can someone legitimately be asked to prove the negative — that there was no cover-up?
One could go on dissecting the reporting and editorializing in this paper to demonstrate the — at best — misleading nature thereof, but let’s leave that for the ombudsman who will, hopefully, be appointed forthwith, which, in light of the above sample, is the minimum needed to restore The Jewish Week’s credibility.
Julius Berman is chairman of the board of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
Editor’s Note: We stand by our reporting. Briefly, Mr. Berman says The Jewish Week should have “checked the agenda” of the Claims Conference meeting in advance; in fact, basic details of the closed meeting, even where it was being held, were kept from us. And as early as 2010 (Feb. 12 issue) we reported that it was the German government that was defrauded and that no money was taken from Holocaust survivors. Mr. Berman has chosen to criticize press coverage rather than respond to the report of the Claims Conference ombudsman, which called for an in-depth examination of “the general conduct over many years that enabled such a large-scale fraud to continue unimpeded.”