The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, better known as the Claims Conference, has been responding to calls for more openness and transparency of late in exactly the wrong way. As the organization believed to be the wealthiest in the Jewish world, and with the sacred responsibility of using the billions of dollars at its disposal to care for survivors of the Holocaust, the Claims Conference should be operating in a manner beyond reproach. But the recent scandal related to more than $57 million stolen by a number of employees over a period of 16 years has gone from bad to worse in recent days.
In light of the fact that an anonymous letter to the group detailing the fraud was sent to its leadership, and essentially dismissed, in 2001, questions have been raised about how the scheme could have gone on so long undetected; what safeguards, if any, were in place; and why the chairman of the organization, Julius Berman, has been more defiant than humble in the face of the fiasco.
He initiated an internal investigation into the matter rather than heed the call for an independent probe from Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and first vice president of the Claims Conference, and others. Now there is speculation that a report by the conference’s ombudsman, due to be discussed at the annual board meeting next week, calls out the group’s leadership for failing to act on the 2001 allegations.
Despite formal requests from The Jewish Week and The Forward, the deliberations will take place behind closed doors, as usual.
The two dozen member Jewish organizations from Israel, the U.S. and around the world have a reputation for being a rubber stamp for the Claims Conference leadership. But now is the time for them to push back. Questions must be answered, not avoided. Allegations of a cover-up must be disproven. And those who were guilty of poor judgment must be held accountable and replaced. The Claims Conference members need to fulfill their responsibility to their organization, to the Holocaust survivors still dependent on funding and to the memory of the millions who perished in the Shoah. We can expect no less.