British split over push for greater democracy at Claims Conference

By Simon Rocker, August 22, 2008

British representatives to the Claims Conference, the international Holocaust restitution body, are split over whether it should introduce greater democracy.

Paul Edlin, a vice-president of the Board of Deputies and one of its two delegates on the conference board, is among those pressing for change at the New York-based organisation, which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars annually to Holocaust survivors.

But his fellow Board delegate, Ben Helfgott, who is a vice-president of the conference, rejects the calls, saying: "There is no need for reform."

The conference's policies have come under increasing scrutiny over the past two years, with demands from the Knesset that it should be monitored by Israel's state comptroller.

In response, Julius Berman, the conference's chairman, has set up a special committee composed of a number of board members - including Mr Helfgott - to address some of the criticisms. But Mr Edlin questions the composition of the committee, arguing that it consists mainly of people responsible for its decision-making over the years. He also wants a more democratic structure to the organisation as a whole.

"We'd like to see free and democratic elections and to see the committee of inquiry have some new blood on it," he said this week.

But Mr Helfgott said that board members do get to elect their committees. He also believed that there was "nothing particularly serious" for the special committee to review.

"It is only a matter of having to deal with the situation in Israel [which] has been caused by a number of people who want to take over the organisation," he said.

The conference board consists mainly of representatives from 24 Jewish organisations from across the world - among them the Board of Deputies, the Anglo-Jewish Association and World Jewish Relief from Britain.

The conference paid out more than $600 million (£300m) to survivors and the heirs of victims last year.

Last updated: 1:15pm, August 26 2008