NEW YORK — Sam Norich is a man of absolute integrity. He deserved better — much, much better — than the shabby treatment to which he was subjected at the recent meeting of the board of directors of the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, commonly known as the Claims Conference.
Norich dared to question the actions and behavior of the Claims Conference leadership with respect to a 2001 anonymous letter warning of improprieties that eventually morphed into a $57 million fraud. For this act of lèse-majesté he was turned into a virtual pariah.
Norich and I have been friends for close to 35 years and we share a common history. Our respective parents, all originally from Poland, survived the ghettos and camps of the Shoa. His mother and my parents were liberated at Bergen-Belsen; his father was liberated at Dachau. We were both born in Displaced Persons camps in Germany — Norich at Feldafing in 1947, I at Bergen-Belsen the following year.
Norich went on to serve as a vice president of the World Jewish Congress (1975-1981) and executive director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research before assuming his present position as publisher of the Forward. He has a lifetime of unquestioned commitment to Holocaust remembrance as well as to Jewish social and political activism.
To be clear, Norich was not the only one at the Claims Conference meeting who challenged the imposition of what amounts to a restrictive administrative hegemony on the proceedings. Mervyn Smith of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and Stephan Kramer of the Central Council of Jews in Germany also spoke out in protest.
For the record, three simple, utterly nonconfrontational questions asked back in May of this year by World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder without any pre-judgment — was the existence of the 2001 anonymous letter ever disclosed to the Claims Conference board members? If yes, when? If not, why not? — have never been formally answered, either before or during the meeting.
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky made a plea for an end to the old boys’ club atmosphere that epitomizes the organization. Michael Schneider, a board member on behalf of the WJC, read a statement on behalf of Lauder and Sharansky, expressing their “great disappointment and dismay at the failure on the part of the Claims Conference leadership to disclose the existence of the anonymous 2001 letter” to the board and calling for the implementation of organizational reforms with the participation of a majority of “prominent representatives of the Jewish community and the State of Israel independent of the Claims Conference lay and professional leadership.”
Unfortunately, the board did not adopt this particular suggestion, although a substantial minority did in fact vote in favor of a variation of the Lauder/Sharansky proposal.
But my purpose is not to rehash the issues discussed at the meeting. Rather, I cannot gloss over the utterly unwarranted animus expressed toward Norich after he argued for transparency in organizational governance.
Board members who had worked closely with him for years denounced him as a traitor to the cause of helping Holocaust survivors in their declining years. Such over-the-top virulence in the face of nothing more than a disagreement on a fundamental issue of principle proved to be too much for Norich. He asked for the floor again and announced his resignation from the board as an ultimate act of conscience.
In response, the chairman of the Claims Conference said … nothing. He listened in stony silence as Norich spoke and then opted not to express even pro forma gratitude for Norich’s many years of dedicated service to the organization. He offered no words of thanks for the time and energy Norich gave to the Claims Conference over the course of a decade as a member of numerous committees, one of which he chaired; no appreciation whatsoever of the fact that Norich had steadfastly defended the chairman and the organization against many of their critics in the past; no acceptance of the resignation with regret; no wishing Norich well.
When Norich finished his remarks and got up to leave the meeting, Michael Schneider, Stephan Kramer, Abraham Lehrer — also from Germany — and I went over to speak with him in the corridor.
Inside, the meeting continued without further interruption.
The behavior of those Holocaust survivors and children of survivors in the Claims Conference leadership who regularly turned to Norich for help in the past especially appalled me. He had always been their staunchest ally and advocate. Now, they seemed to have forgotten that he is one of their own.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am the general counsel of one member organization of the Claims Conference and serve on the executive committee of another. I am writing this column, however, in my personal capacity, and the sentiments expressed herein are mine alone.
We cannot allow those who express disparate views within Jewish organizations or the Jewish community at large to be vilified or ostracized. Forced intellectual conformity is not merely stifling and undemocratic by definition. More often than not, it is evidence of a refusal to come to terms with inconvenient realities.
Norich’s voice is an important one that should not be cavalierly dismissed or ignored. He certainly does not deserve to be treated with contempt.
Even at this late date, the Claims Conference should make every effort to get him to reconsider and resume his leadership role in the organization. There are far too few individuals like him in our midst for us to be able to afford his absence from the critical tasks on behalf of the survivors that the Claims Conference must confront in the future.
(Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide and war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.)