With millions of dollars in claims against Holocaust-era insurance policies still unresolved, Lawrence Eagleburger, the former U.S. secretary of state who now chairs the International Commission of Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, slammed down his gavel and stormed out of Tuesday’s commission meeting.
The outburst at the closed-door session in Washington came during a discussion of Eagleburger’s Nov. 1 decision to unilaterally terminate ICHEIC’s agreement with the Generali Trust Fund in Israel.
The fund was created by the Knesset to handle claims against Assicurazioni Generali, the insurance firm that wrote the majority of unpaid Holocaust-era policies bought by European Jews, and later functioned as ICHEIC’s liaison in Israel. The Knesset selected the members of the fund.
Some Jewish and Israeli members of ICHEIC’s board met with Eagleburger to question why he acted unilaterally when he could have brought the matter to this week’s board meeting.
In addition, they questioned his decision to allow Generali to review on its own all pending claims.
“There was a feeling that there should be an Israeli component” in the review process, even if it is not the fund, said a person familiar with the discussion who asked not to be identified.
In a memorandum explaining his decision to terminate ICHEIC’s relationship with the fund, Eagleburger wrote the “quality of the fund’s individual claims handling is clearly below ICHEIC standards, and of a nature that ICHEIC has not seen and certainly would not tolerate from any of the insurance companies processing ICHEIC claims. The quality of work done by the fund compared extremely unfavorably to a similar sample of claims processed directly by Generali.”
At the meeting, the issue of the fund was discussed. Eagleburger’s outburst occurred at the end, shortly after Israel Singer, representing the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, said he remarked that he was pleased Eagleburger “had an open door.”
“I said we were pleased that in his remarks today, he left that door open for further discussions about how best to deal with those claims from Generali,” Singer recalled. “Our interest is first and foremost for the claimants.”
Others spoke in defense of Eagleburger’s decision, then Eagleburger reportedly roared, “My whole life I have been working for Israel and here in this room suddenly I’m being accused of working against Israel. I’m shocked.”
Mara Rudman, ICHEIC’s chief operations officer, said Eagleburger “was concerned that his integrity with respect to his commitment to Israel was being questioned.”
Rudman declined to say why Eagleburger had become so upset, saying only: “It was not from those who spoke in support of the decision.”
Asked if The Jewish Week could speak with Eagleburger, she snapped, “No, you cannot.”
Asked about Rudman’s comments, Singer said: “I don’t believe that anybody in the room questions Larry Eagleburger’s integrity with regard to Israel,” adding later, “I’m sure it was a misunderstanding.”
The Knesset is expected to take up the Eagleburger decision next week. Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, Knesset member from the United Torah Judaism party who was instrumental in creating the fund, addressed the issue last week in the parliament. He claimed that the fund has paid out $68 million to date, while ICHEIC “has only paid $20 million so far.”
Rabbi Ravitz also complained about ICHEIC’s decision to stop accepting insurance claims last Dec. 31 and to review only claims that had been submitted by March 31.
“In Israel, the fund is functioning as it should and we are very proud [of it],” he said. “What has happened with ICHEIC in the United States? For some reason, in an entirely arbitrary manner and with no special explanation, they have apparently become fed up and they decided that after March 2004 no more claims may be filed.”
Rudman said the commission, which was created in December 1998, is to complete its work in the spring of 2006. She said it has received 80,000 claims — 22,000 that name specific insurance companies which have not yet paid claims — and processed about half of them.
The offers to claimants have totaled $108 million. Of those, $88 million in offers were based on proof of insurance, with the rest primarily $1,000 payments made for humanitarian reasons.