Victims turned into villains on November 9 when the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) announced it had arrested 17 people accused of issuing false claims and documents to obtain pensions and hardship allowances from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, better known as the Jewish Claims Conference (JCC).
There are strong suspicions the $42.5 million fraud case is only the tip of the iceberg. Especially in the last two decades, the JCC has come under fierce criticism for greed, mismanagement and a lack of transparency, even within Israel and the Jewish establishment. Founded in 1951, the JCC represents Jewish victims of Nazi persecution and their heirs in negotiating for compensation and restitution from the German government “to secure… a small measure of justice.”
To date, Germany has paid some $60 billion, which the JCC administered and distributed not only among victims and heirs, as was originally intended, but also among a long list of Jewish organizations that deal with Holocaust victim care, commemoration and education. Many of these organizations are represented on the JCC Board of Directors. Following the FBI statement, the JCC went into spin mode with adverts and interviews to portray itself as a victim, which was the language adopted by most media and even the US prosecutor.
Yet, six of the accused actually worked for the JCC, including Semen Domnitser, who since 1999 headed two of its funds. He was jailed, but immediately freed on $250,000 bail pending trial. The actual victim is of course the German taxpayer. Writing in Israeli daily Haaretz, Anschel Pfeffer defined the JCC as “the richest, most powerful and least answerable old-boys’ network in the Jewish world” and feared the scandal was unlikely to be a case of “a few bad apples.”
According to a former JCC director, the organization has amassed more than $1 billion in liquid assets, while the Jewish Chronicle criticized the $437,811 salary one JCC official received in 2004. Isi Leibler, a former chairman of the World Jewish Congress, accused the JCC of incompetence and cover-ups and called for an independent review board. Likewise, the Movement for Quality Government, an Israeli anti-corruption platform, calls for the JCC to be placed under supervision. The JCC’s creative accounting methods seem to have started after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the organization saw a whole new world of options and possibilities to seek compensation for Jewish victims and their heirs living in countries of the former Soviet Union. The $42.5 million fraud mainly deals with such cases.
One case in particular has created bad blood both within and outside the Jewish community. In 1990, when the new democratic government of East Germany introduced a law to restitute property nationalized by the former communist regime, the JCC — even before the reunification of East and West Germany — ensured that this included the restitution of Jewish-opened property sold after 1933 or confiscated by the Nazis. What’s more, the JCC became the legal successor to all Jewish property that went unclaimed by the end of 1992, whereby it had the privilege to file “broad claims” in which such minor details as the property’s actual location and the owners’ names could be filled in at a later stage. German weekly Der Spiegel reported that some 240,000 claims were filed in East Berlin alone. In some cases, there were 10 claims for one property and in nearly all cases the JCC was one of the claimants. According to the JCC, the “real estate” fund brought in some $2.3 billion. The JCC is currently negotiating with other Eastern European countries over a similar settlement. Finally, the JCC administers the $1.5 billion of the curious Swiss Banks Settlement account, which some people have called the biggest case of legal blackmail in the history of mankind.
While the $42.5 million scandal may have opened the lid for more investigations concerning the JCC, some more fundamental questions come to mind. For example, if a Jewish victim of Nazi persecution is entitled to claim property he was forced to sell before fleeing in 1938, should a gypsy or homosexual holocaust survivor not be able to do the same? And, last but not least, what does this all mean for a Palestinian farmer who lost everything in 1948?
is a Beirut-based journalist