Battle heats up in Claims Conference brouhaha

Claims Conference Chairman Julius Berman is facing growing calls from critics who say he is not going far enough to investigate how a pair of fraud inquires in 2001 failed to detect a multimillion dollar fraud scheme underway at the conference.

The criticism ranges from accusations that the internal committee Berman appointed to look into the episode (headed by board executive chairman Reuven Merhav), is insufficiently independent to charges that the governance of the Claims Conference is inherently flawed. Complicating matters is that Berman himself oversaw one of the bungled 2001 fraud inquiries.


On Monday, in the latest salvo, the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, which occupies a seat on the Claims Conference board, added its voice to the growing calls for an independent review of the 2001 episode.

On the defensive, Berman on May 30 sent his board an 11-page email striking back against critics, singling out the Forward newspaper, Jerusalem Post columnist Isi Leibler and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky for special opprobrium.

“I no longer have the luxury of sitting back and allowing such unvarnished lies to be publishing about me without responding,” Berman wrote in his email to the board, which was shared with JTA and several other news organizations.

In his email, Berman talks about the position he held at the time of the 2001 episode but does not discuss the role he played in the bungled probe he oversaw. He uses most of the email to answer criticism and correct what he says are inaccuracies and falsehoods in reporting about the issue since the Forward first reported on May 14 about the existence of a 2001 fraud inquiry at the Claims Conference.

That clamor sparked by that report was further fueled by JTA’s subsequent revelation of a second fraud inquiry in 2001 overseen by Berman.

Berman appears most outraged in his email by a May 23 editorial in the Forward titled “A Moral Responsibility” that called Berman’s response to the episode “clearly inadequate.”

So far, there’s no indication that Berman will accede to the calls to appoint an investigative commission led by someone outside the Claims Conference to look into the matter.

In an interview on May 23 with JTA, Berman vowed not to resign.

“I’m a fighter. And I’m proud to be a fighter,” Berman said. “I make mistakes, too, but if people blame me for making mistakes, I’m certainly not going to cave.”

Uriel Heilman is JTA’s managing editor, responsible for coordinating JTA’s editorial team. He re-joined JTA in 2007 after a stint doing independent reporting in Israel and the Arab world. Before that, he served as New York bureau chief of the Jerusalem Post. An award-winning journalist, he has served as JTA’s news editor and worked as a reporter for a variety of publications in the United States and in Israel.