Friday, November 26, 2010

The Wages of Fear

History isn’t bunk, as a great industrialist who was also a first-class anti-Semite once said, but it is often taught as if it is, especially at the elementary and secondary levels. There is the piling on of facts to be memorized and then to serve as answers on tests that put the students’ brains in mothballs. There is too little focus on understanding and nuance. When I was a lad more than fifty years ago and working on my doctorate, I taught social studies for two years at a new yeshiva high school, an experience that brought an incomparable blessing. About the American Revolution, the assignment was for students to get the British point of view on what transpired in 1776 and thereabouts.

A perspective about history is sorely needed in this time of cholera, of an anger that begets hatred which, in turn, begets repression. This is a recurring motif in American history, cropping up at intervals of about fifty years and occasionally much briefer. Likely, the phenomenon is true of other societies as there is a tide in the affairs of men and nations. The consequences are never pretty, as an air of suspicion warps judgment and distorts reality, within innocent persons being harmed and cherished values jettisoned. For all of the deplorable pain, it is necessary to remember that this too shall pass, that there will be better days.

If we look across the span of American history, there is a pattern, starting with the Salem Witch trials and culminating with post-Second World War McCarthyism with much else that was impelled by fear in between. It is as if history has a biological aspect that from time to time generates emotions that overcome reason and fairness, emotions that propel this nation in the direction away from what America should stand for.

That is what is happening now. We are in an early stage of the fever and worse awaits us. This is not about a conservative mindset, whether in its Tea Party incarnation or any other. There is a legitimate, albeit limited, case to be made for the notion that the government that governs least is the government that governs best and, more powerfully, against the folly that mountains of public debt should grow larger in support of the false god of entitlements. Those of a liberal orientation need to reflect on why after trillions of dollars for programs allegedly aimed at assisting the needy, we are constantly told that the ranks of the needy are greater than ever. The answer isn’t blowing in the wind; it’s in the povertycratic “non-profit” scam involving thousands of well-fed organizations benefitting handsomely off public funding designed to help the needy.

In the reaction against this excess, the baby is being thrown out with the bath water, so that good programs will be hurt. Being conservative about fiscal issues brings with it ideological baggage, including opposition to the main immigration policies and a growing disrespect for basic rights. The fever is such that overwhelmingly public opinion is against giving those accused of terrorism a fair trial and there is hysteria about conducting such a trial in Manhattan. America is not made more secure as a result of these positions. When we depart from values and practices that are our glory, our country is diminished.

Fear is contagious, leaping across boundaries. What is aimed at the enemy affects many more innocent persons. In Justice Brandeis’ epic formulation, referring to Salem and contemporaneous events, “Men feared witches and burnt women.” We are now witness to the harmful wages of fear as Homeland Security and Transportation Safety officials apparently believe that sexual abuse is an appropriate response to terrorism. These experts should ponder Israel’s policy, as that country’s existential threat does not require full x-ray exposure of one’s privates or the patting down of genitals.

The mutations in behavior essentially aimed at protecting our security are a victory of sorts of terrorists and their allies. Much more awaits us.

It remains to be seen whether the atmosphere and its progeny are bad news for Jews. If history is a guide, there is reason for concern. Whether of an economic or another nature, crisis invariably has served as an invitation to those who wish us ill to come out of the woodwork. In the years prior to the Second World War through the McCarthy experience, there was an abundance of anti-Jewish sentiment in this country. Then there was a remarkable shift in opinion and for a half a century we have been admired. It is perhaps of note that during this half century, for all of the political and ideological conflict that we have been witness to, America was not in the throes of fear. The haters -and there have been many, some openly anti-Semitic – have been pushed away from the mainstream, relegated as it were to the fringes of American life and outside of the pale of respectability.

Hopefully, this will not change, yet there are reasons to be worried. We Jews, simply put, do not fare well when the societies that we are in are gripped by fear.

This is a reality that should be pondered by my fellow Orthodox , particularly those who are charedi or fervently Orthodox, too many of whom are also fervently right wing. It’s understandable why on certain social issues they may strongly veer toward conservatism. What is troublesome is their embrace of the right wing, their swallowing whole hog an extremist ideology that poses a danger, I believe, to American Jews.

It is painfully necessary to say that Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the right-wing hate parade are not our Roshei Yeshiva or Rebbes. Their ideology and rhetoric are not a branch of Judiasm. We have our Torah and our laws and they are our guides. It is time for those Orthodox who are intoxicated by the right wing to reflect on our painful history, much of it still recent, that demonstrates the peril.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Claims Conference Once More

The Claims Conference which is the principal conduit for German government reparations funds is once more in the news and once more the news is not good. A massive fraud, amounting to at least $42 million, has been uncovered, mainly involving bogus claimants from the former Soviet Union. I doubt that this is the entire story. There needs to be an independent investigation, including a thorough audit of all Claims Conference accounts.

Whenever large sums are available for distribution to a large pool of potential claimants, there is a strong likelihood of some fraud, particularly when, as is true of restitution funds, criteria for eligibility are not precise and certain claims are not fully provable. There are claimants who see their opportunity and come out of the woodwork. Although the situations are not quite comparable, the funds established for Ground Zero claimants and recently for those who say that the British Petroleum Gulf of Mexico disaster caused them great harm are feeding troughs for some scoundrels. There is no reason to expect that human nature will be altered because the restitution funds are linked to the Holocaust.

There is no question about the integrity of those in charge of the Claims Conference. There are huge questions about their management skills. It is no comfort that the organization played a key role in uncovering the fraud that just made the front page of the New York Times because this fraud was largely in-house and conducted over a considerable span of years by key employees. That is astonishing.

If a major Jewish organization was beset by a similar scandal, questions would be asked by contributors, the media and others and changes would be made. There would be greater accountability. Because of its vital mission, the Claims Conference should be subjected to greater scrutiny and heightened accountability. This isn’t the case, which is curious and yet there is an explanation. Because there is no fundraising, accountability is diminished. Its board and officers operate essentially as a self-perpetuating body.

The imperious attitude that prevails is manifested by the role now played by Professor Burt Neuborne in the distribution of certain Holocaust-related funds. I have no brief against him and doubtlessly he has done much that is meritorious, but Holocaust-related funds are not his finest hour, as was clearly demonstrated in the Swiss Bank litigation.

The likelihood is that, as in the past, the Claims Conference will do little or nothing in response to the latest scandal, expecting that once more media and communal attention will be short-lived. The organization has weathered worse crises and can calculate that its standard operation procedure of ignoring and often denigrating calls for reform and transparency will pay off. Worse yet, it has engaged Howard Rubinstein and Associates, a sure message that something is rotten and rather than reform, damage control is the order of the day. Is it sufficient to bring in a spinmaster who counsels obfuscation and the application of dabs of perfume to cover up the stench?

Of all of the wrongs or questionable actions attributed to the Claims Conference, none holds a candle to its complicity in the failure to protect those whose property was seized by the Nazis. In the words of Isi Leibler, formerly a leader of Australian Jewry who now lives in Israel and was involved in the Claims Conference, its “leaders have adopted a Robin Hood approach in relation to this issue, arguing that the proceeds of these properties should be directed to other Claims Conference enterprises.”

All told, more than fifty thousand parcels of land have been transferred to the Claims Conference. Many have been sold, with the funds going to the organization to dispense as it pleases. Time limits for applying and other bureaucratic impediments have made it difficult and, at times, impossible for rightful heirs to get back what is rightfully theirs. This is a key issue in Leibler’s powerful indictment of the Claims Conference published last week in Israel Hayom, the country’s largest circulation newspaper. In response to the question, “Will you publish a current list of properties which the Claims Conference holds, including an estimate of their valuation?”, the organization says in part, “The publication of the valuation of the assets, prior to placing them on auction, would prejudice the ability to get the best possible price for them.” Apart from this not being true, how does this trump the rights of heirs?

The Claims Conference story is about what happens when there is too little accountability, when people who doubtlessly have accomplished good elsewhere have come to regard a communal enterprise as theirs and not the community’s. Reparation funds are not meant for staff or officers but for Holocaust survivors and, in a larger and vital sense, for the Jewish nation wherever we may live and especially in Israel. It is not immaterial that over the years the Israeli government and major instrumentalities of Israeli life have been among the most persistent critics of the organization.

When we reflect on what has happened over the years, including multiple big league scandals, it is apparent that the Claims Conference is in a league by itself. No other Jewish enterprise could go through what it has experienced without major reforms in management and policy. The Claims Conference has insulated itself, living inside a self-created communal bubble that provides greater immunity from scrutiny than perhaps any other major player in our robust communal life.

It is time for change in management and leadership. There needs to be transparency and accountability. Our media need to be alert to the story. To start the process of change, outsiders should be brought in to evaluate the situation and to make recommendations and the report that they issue should be made public. The alternative to major reform is the next scandal that may already be in the making.