Claims Conference Meets for Fateful Session on Funds

NEW YORK - The board of directors of The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which disburses compensation and humanitarian aid to Holocaust survivors, is to meet today with an initiative on the agenda to reconsider the entire method and criteria for the way the funds are handed out.

The money at stake includes about half a billion dollars of unclaimed monies in Swiss bank accounts - though there are reports that much of that funding will go back to its original owners or their heirs.

There are also hundreds of millions of dollars in restitution money from unclaimed property in the former East Germany.

Conference President Israel Singer of the World Jewish Congress has termed the session "fateful."

There are 24 organizations and institutions represented in the conference.

Among the issues on the agenda are an appeal to the Austrian government to start handing out some $210 million as compensation for Jewish property and other assets that were expropriated during Nazi occupation.

The "ghetto pensions," are also on the agenda, with some organizations claiming the German government is dragging its feet on the matter. It refers to full German state pensions for Jews who were worked in ghettos during the various occupations across Europe.

Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, has raised the idea of reorganizing the manner and method of disbursing the funds. The central element is a greater role for coordination and cooperation with the Israeli government by putting a government official on the board that sets criteria and priorities for the distribution of the funds.

Israel is adamant that a larger share of the conference funds be distributed in Israel.

Earlier this month, the finance minister wrote to Bronfman and WJC Chairman Israel Singer calling for a "blue-ribbon panel to examine how to increase the efficiency, transparency, relevance and coordination in restitution efforts."

Singer, who presides over the conference, told Haaretz yesterday that "this is a fateful session."

He said that he intends to announce the establishment of the new panel and make public the identities of the representatives who will take part.

"The panel will reexamine the entire reparations basket and grants for survivors," he said.

"The compensation money and humanitarian funds do not belong to the Jewish organizations or the Claims Conference but to the Jewish people.

"The job of the Claims Conference is to come up with a moral and orderly way to hand out the money," he said.