Former Diplomat Reuven Merhav, Where Is All the Claims Conference Money Going, if Not to Survivors?

Descendants of Jewish Moroccans and other North Africans who lived under the Vichy regime are eligible for reparations as victims of the Nazis, it was announced yesterday.

Descendants of Jewish Moroccans and other North Africans who lived under the Vichy regime are eligible for reparations as victims of the Nazis, it was announced yesterday. Reuven Merhav, a former diplomat, member of the Mossad and Middle East scholar, is the chairman of the board of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the organization that handles negotiations for reparations with Germany.

How did you achieve this recognition?

Reuven Merhav
Tomer Appelbaum

There is a meeting every year to negotiate with the Germans. They are organized people and come prepared.

Why do you have to hold negotiations every year?

Because there are some improvements every year and there are changes in the criteria. Two years ago, we managed to obtain recognition for [Jews] who survived the siege of Leningrad. For years the Germans did not want to recognize them, and we had not yet discovered enough facts to prove that the Jews, among those people living under the siege - one that lasted for 900 days - were exposed to immediate slaughter the moment the Germans learned about them. It is the same story with the open ghetto in Budapest and other places.

How do you define the denial of freedom? Legislation has developed over many years, and the criteria fixed in the '80s have changed over time. As archives open, there is more evidence, and the Germans are aware of this. There have been big changes in criteria. At first the Germans fixed very rigid criteria.

The stiffest rules are those set by the claims conference. What happens is that the conference has a lot of money but not enough to distribute to the survivors.

No no no. This isn't even an urban legend. The only available money the claims conference has is from the property of heirs in [the former] East Germany, which German Jews long ago gave up on in favor of needy survivors around the world.

And what about the conference's 1 billion Euro?

A billion euro is a legend, an invention, since the billion euro on the balance sheet includes a third which has already been promised to heirs who have delayed filing claims and whose rights have been recognized but have not yet filed documents. Another third is money which has already been allocated by a committee - half of which is comprised of survivors and the other half by non-survivors. And the final third is a cash reserve that Moshe Zanbar, who served as chairman of the claims investment committee, acting as banker, proposed. He said that since the claims conference's available funds were obtained by selling property in East Germany, and because it did not amount to much because of the real estate crisis, the claims must always reserve an amount equivalent roughly to three years worth of payments, about $100 million a year.

But the organization which you lead, the Association of Israelis of Central European Origin, which is not a Holocaust survivor group, receives a lot of money from the claims conference.

I said victims of the Nazis on purpose. All the people who were forced to leave Germany and its territories are recognized as Nazi victims.

And all the people who were ever entitled to reparations from Germany by any arrangement, because of injury to their freedom or education or health, are defined as Nazi victims and the organization I lead has retirement homes for Nazi victims.

These allocations are not given to the organization but rather to the nursing and geriatric units in these homes. The organization as an organization has never received one penny from the claims conference.

So why have investigations launched fount otherwise? Why did even the Dorner committee censure senior officials who traveled in business class? Who has an interest in making these things up?

The people chosen for the claims conference do not receive a penny. I am a volunteer, 100 hours a month, and like me there are dozens more around the world. I am one of the most senior people here and I can tell you. The person who coordinates activities in Israel today was formerly the director of the justice ministry and of the state comptroller's office.

At the time I wanted to enlist him, because I saw that the amount of work here was growing, the claims conference had no presence. It sat and did the work and didn't pay attention to the fact that the world had turned upside down and there were marches of [people in] pajamas, and journalists and there were - it's unpleasant for me to say this - politicians who wanted money they did not deserve to get.

So corrupt politicians are behind this?

I'll give you an example: the story of the billion dollars was invented; it was written in the draft of the Jewish Agency report for 2006-7 since it had requested money that was not received. After the crisis of the Second Lebanon War, the chairman of the Jewish Agency at that time approached the claims conference and asked for money for agency activities. We said no, we are not the bank of the Jewish nation; we are the bank for needy survivors. And they started to pry and search and do all kinds of things.

The same thing happened with all kinds of other groups - people who did not get what they wanted. And one more thing: All the communities who received the assets for which there were no heirs took took for their own needs. The only community which carried out a real act of charity - and I am proud to represent them - and made the assets available to everyone is the German Jews. Since then everyone wants to put his hands on this money.

When the Dutch received 500 million euro and sat on it, as they say in the Mishne, sat on their dinars, and didn't let anyone get near it, no one said a word. But since [the German Jews] made it available to everyone, people want to put their fingers in the pot. That's the whole story.

What is being done so that the survivors will actually receive the money while they are still alive?

Look, the claims conference conducted negotiations so that the Germans would grant money for absorption, a grant to ease suffering, amounting to about 5,000 marks, about 2,560 Euro today. At the time the Germans gave it, it was for three years for about 80,000 people. Meanwhile, thank God, it has lasted for 29 years and has been received by close to 400,000 people. So here is an example of changes in the criteria - what was once given only to people from Eastern Europe will now be given to others who suffered in Leningrad or Budapest or Morocco. The claims conference website is user-friendly and aside from that, anyone who wants can come to the office on Haarba'a Street [in Tel Aviv], and there are people there to help with filling out forms. There is no need for any machers.

Here's a question for you as a retiree of the security and diplomatic services: Today there was an explosion in an Egyptian gas pipeline, there is also an uprising in Syria. What do you think lies ahead with everything that's going on around us?

I'm a member of the Tirkel commission. I can't say anything about any of these things.