Writ threats fly over film ‘exposé’ of claims body

By Anshel Pfeffer, May 1, 2008

The airing of an investigative TV documentary in Israel which fiercely criticises the Claims Conference over its policy towards Holocaust survivors has caused the normally conservative organisation to react with unaccustomed vigour. However, threats of legal action have failed to prevent the programme’s transmission.

Moral Reparations 2, broadcast on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, is the second film by the two self-styled docu-activists, Orly Vilnai-Federbush and Guy Meroz, on the plight of Holocaust survivors in Israel.

Their first film, last year, attacked successive Israeli governments for withholding from the survivors part of the money received from Germany in the Reparations Agreement of 1952, and not doing enough to take care of their welfare.

The new film concentrates on the Claims Conference, the New York-based organisation set up to allocate pensions and benefits received from the German and Austrian governments to the survivors. The Conference was accused in the film of maintaining lavish offices, paying large salaries to its executives and withholding part of the money it received from the Germans instead of allocating it to survivors. The JC too has previously investigated such allegations. Mr Meroz and Ms Vilnai-Federbush also list various Jewish organisations that receive funds from the Conference despite the fact, according to their claims, that these organisations do not contribute to the survivors’ welfare.

In addition, they claim that some of these organisations are tied to Conference board members.

They also attack the Conference for deducting hefty fees from heirs of properties in former East Germany. In the most controversial scene of the film, Mr Meroz is seen accosting the German Finance Minister visiting Israel, asking: “Do you know that not all the money you give the Claims Conference reaches the survivors?”

The Conference has rebutted all these accusations, most of which have appeared in the media in the past, claiming that it runs an efficient organisation, allocates funds according to transparent criteria and that all the money in its bank accounts is earmarked for survivors’ benefits over the next decade.

According to the Conference, it has enabled heirs of East German property to press their claims past the final deadline in German law and has picked up the legal fees.

No stranger to controversy over recent years, the Conference usually answers its critics in more subtle ways. This time, though, a senior official at the Conference told the JC: “It could be really damaging, these people have lost all sense of proportion.” In a 23-page internal document, prepared for the Conference board members and seen by the JC, the management attacks the filmmakers for producing “a totally one-sided sensationalist litany of attacks and criticism… fuelled by a small band of disgruntled parties who are motivated by self-interests” and embarking on “a pattern of deception and accusation”.

Until now, the Conference has been careful not to take its critics to court, but this week, its lawyers threatened the Shamayim Production company behind the film with a lawsuit unless extensive changes were made to the film. Shamayim’s lawyers responded by agreeing to make only very minor changes and to allow a response from the Conference — which had previously cut all ties with the producers — to be shown at the end, but the film would be aired as scheduled.

In the ensuing media mêlée, the Conference enlisted the support of high-tech entrepreneur Noam Lanir, an original backer of the film, who demanded the producers return the $50,000 [£25,000] he gave them, claiming its treatment of the issue was “provocative” and “brutal” and endangered the aid to survivors.

The filmmakers responded with their own media campaign, darkly hinting at pressures on them to cancel the broadcast. Ms Vilnai-Federbush went as far as to say on Israel Radio on Wednesday morning that Mr Lanir had been offered an honorary position on the Conference’s board. Mr Lanir responded with a threat to sue her for NIS 2 million.

Michal Hochberg, a senior producer at Shamayim Productions told the JC, that “despite the pressure, we never considered cancelling the broadcast and we made only a few changes, most of them even before the threats arrived”.

Last updated: 5:06pm, May 7 2008