"Yitzchak Kerem is an historian on Sephardic Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has been the editor of Sefarad, the Sephardic newsletter, since 1991. He is also a former radio moderator of "Diaspora Jewry" (Reshet Bet and Aleph, 2004-2007), section editor for Encyclopedia of the Holocaust and New Encyclopedia Judaica, and is now visiting Israeli professor of Sephardic Studies at American Jewish University of Los Angeles."
On March 15, we spoke for two hours at my hovel.
Luke: "What is your role in Israel [where Yitzchak has lived for 38 years] with Holocaust reparations?"
Yitzchak: "I’ve done a lot of things in life just by coincidence… The only thing I planned in my life was to make aliyah [move to Israel]. Aside from that, everything just happened. I take seriously what I do. I’m already middle-aged. I’ve seen a lot. I was involved in the struggle to free Soviety Jewry. Even as a young teenager, I struggled to free Syrian Jewry. In Israel, I was involved in the peace movement. I was also involved in a lot of topics related to the kidnapping of Yemenite Jews and other Jewish immigrants to Israel between 1949-1956. In a lot of these things, people came to me. I have a reputation. I’m a researcher and I’ve done a lot of things. When I see something as morally objectionable, I take it seriously. History isn’t just something I write about. I do a lot of things because I see a lot of injustices.
"I’ve dealt a lot with Iranian Jewry. The first time I visited Iran was in 1976. I led the struggle to free the 13 Jews in Shiraz, Iran, who were in prison from 1997 to 2001. I wrote a book about it. I found out they were imprisoned 90 minutes after it happened. Yitzchak Shamir didn’t believe me. Bibi [Netanyahu] didn’t believe me.
"I dealt with Holocaust reparations. As a scholar of the Jews of Greece and the Sephardim and the Eastern Jews, they also have a Holocaust story. In many cases, they weren’t annihilated in masses, but in some cases they were. I can ascertain today that the majority of the Sephardim who survived the Holocaust did not receive reparations and they’ve already died. They were totally delegitimized by the Jewish world. About a fourth of the [Jozef] Mengele survivors, women who had cancer implanted in their uteri or men who were castrated, the German government played with these people, the Jewish world played with these people, you had a man in Los Angeles, a Salonican Jew who was castrated, he was divorced twice, he was treated like a rag by the Jewish people. He didn’t receive Holocaust reparations.
"Maybe I only succeeded in getting reparations for a hundred Sephardim who wouldn’t have gotten it otherwise because I pushed, but what any one person does makes a big influence. In Los Angeles there’s a woman by the name of Zane Buzby who feeds  old Jews, many of them Holocaust survivors, in seven countries in Eastern Europe because the Jewish world has become corrupt. Because the Claims Conference neglects these people. Because the Claims Conference is determined by all sorts of questionable criterion. That these people aren’t survivors. That they don’t deserve it. The Joint has ignored most of these survivors. And it is only by accident that this woman who cares has taken it upon herself."
"She can’t met the demand since there are thousands (maybe as many as 125,000) neglected by the Claims Conference and the Joint Distribution Committee in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe."
"As I see more and more, I sit by passively less and less. I sat for two years on a public ad hoc committee at the Knesset with survivors and with Israeli parliamentarians to try to attempt to get reparations for those that can be helped. The problem is Israel didn’t want to touch the issue of reparations since 1953. [David] Ben Gurion has negotiations with [Konrad] Adenaeur, the German premier, but he said, this issue is too volatile, too ugly, we’re going to have the reparations distribution given abroad and decided abroad.
"In the beginning, it was given in Europe through Nachum Goldman, who was the head of the World Jewish Congress. Essentially, it established itself in New York City. It’s an organization of a few technocrats deciding who will get reparations. It represents most of the major Jewish organizations in the world. It’s a questionable partnership with the Israeli government, but the main players behind the scenes are the 23 major Jewish organizations. There’s been massive corruption for dozens of years by the Claims Conference, and the World Jewish Congress and organizations like Pioneer Women, Bnai Brith, Hadassah, the Orthodox organizations, the Reform movement, the Conservative movement.
"Last summer, between 30 and 40 Israeli Holocaust survivors were dying a day of neglect, of starvation, of neglect medically… This is the crime. What we see with Madoff is just the continuation of the base morality we have today. Evading this issue is evading the cancer which exists now in a lot of the Jewish people and Jewish organizational life and it is only going to get worse. American Jewry is totally disconnected with what goes on, is totally out of touch, is totally ignorant.
"I’ve even wanted to meet Rob Eshman, the leader of the, the Editor of the Jewish Journal. We made an appointment. Conveniently, he didn’t show up. I don’t know where he was, but he had an assistant. From what I’ve read, this boy needs a brush-up. Essentially, he screwed me over. It didn’t matter. The point is, he didn’t get the message. He’s not going to get the message. He’s continuing the establishment line. He’s continuing the Federation line."
I email Rob Eshman: "[Dr. Kerem] said you stood him up. Tsk, tsk."
Rob replies: "Not true. I said we would be eager to speak to him, and indeed he and Senior Editor Adam Wills (who has a specific interest and expertise in Sephardic Jewry) met in our office for over an hour. I said I would try to see him, but all my meetings ran late. Not that I’m defensive or anything…"
Yitzchak emails me later: "Rob Eshman’s rep said he (Rob) would not be at meeting and he did not say he was running late. Rob added that to save face. Please ask Rob why he did not publicize the Israeli court decision to freeze 10 million dollars of Eli Weisel’s Foundation assets in Israel, which were taken illegitimately from an LA Jewish firm."
Yitzchak: "The Federation for years and years and years has not given funds for Jewish education and for things that need to be subsidized. Starting with the Yom Kippur War, there was a big hoax in New York City where the money collected for the Israel emergency fund never went there."
Yitzchak emails me later: "In regard to NY Jewish Community Federation bluffing public about 1973 Yom Kippur War emergency fund proceeds not going to their destination Israel, I would like the public to know that at the time in order to hush the issue in the press, the NY Jewish Federation Chairman ordered a Jewish man, his wife, and three sons to come to his home in Sands Point, Long Island, and told them if they did not stop trying to publish the story he would do an Altalena episode on them; in other words arrange for their assassination."
"Jewish people, this is what we have to work on. The Claims Conference is just a symptom of the corruption. Those who are closest to the Claims Conference get the money and those with no connections are left out in the dark. Israel has about 250,000 survivors, about half of the survivors, and they have no voice. The public protested and there was a consensus politically to give the survivors more money and the Finance Minister Roni Barron vetoed it because there wasn’t money in the annual government budget.
"It doesn’t matter who you are, but you can have a role in the wake-up call. Everyone is astounded by Madoff but the things I am going to say to you are unbelievable, but this is part of our moral corruption. The Holocaust is abused by people who make it a business. A tremendous amount of money has gone into museums, I agree with the general trend, and a lot of groups are ignored in the Holocaust commemoration including the Sephardim, including people in groups that were essential, Peter Berigson and Hillel Cook in America. Yad Vashem decided Cook wouldn’t be on the walls of Yad Vashem because he did what he did outside of occupied Europe. The real issue is because he was a Revisionist. I’m not a Revisionist. I’m not from the Israeli Right. The point is what he did is not considered legitimate because he was from the Israeli Right.
"There’s a certain tone that the Labor movement initiated and that determines what our knowledge is of the Holocaust and it determines how we view history and how we overlook our fellow Jews."
"I read in the Jewish Journal that probably $100 billion has been given out [in Holocaust reparations]. Ilon Zvi, who made a film in America about the corruption of the system, quoted Israel Singer’s estimate of $20 billion, which is extremely low. The question is, if $20 billion was received, why wasn’t $20 billion given out? Maybe only $4 billion was given out? Maybe $40 some billion was collected? Why is there an organization called Beit Zedek in Los Angeles that has to help survivors process their applications. This is 60-some years later. The Claims Conference just gave a grant to Beit Zedek to help. The Claims Conference intentionally stalls and misleads people.
"A lot of this subject has been busted open because I pressured Netty Gross, and she became the Holocaust reparations corruption investigative reporter of The Jerusalem Report which most of you do not even know about. Don’t think it’s a leftist magazine. It’s investigative reporting about corruption in the Jewish world. If a dozen survivors are dying a day of neglect because of corruption, and you’re all mad at Madoff, for his stealing, but you’re unaware of all the thousands who have stolen parallel to him, especially in New York.
"My plan is, and of course no one wants to do it, but I want to have an official audit by the Israeli and German governments since 1953, where the money went. And then bring all the people to New York who stole the money and misled the survivors and have those that are still living brought to trial.
"The first time I lectured about this was in 1989 to the European community. At the time, it made very little headway. But things are happening. I pressured Netty Gross for nine months to write an article about why Sephardim don’t receive reparations.
"I know a lady in Los Angeles who was in Auschwitz. She was deported from the island of Rhodes late in the war, July 23, 1944. She only arrived in Auschwitz in August 1944. She was rejected six times by the Claims Conference because she wasn’t in the camp 18 months… She did not even get a token from the Jewish people for the suffering she had gotten. In the end, if you pressured enough, if you had someone who processed your application, you got it.
"She was rejected just like the Mengele survivor in Los Angeles. She was rejected like thousands of other people who even were in Auschwitz… There were a group of 15 Jews in Montreal who were in Auschwitz more than two years and they wrote 43 times to the Canadian Jewish community and they were never answered and they never received reparations. This is corruption. This is neglect. This is racism. They’re being discriminated [against] because they are not Ashkenazim, just like they were discriminated against in Auschwitz because they didn’t speak Yiddish and this is a continuation of Holocaust behavior.
"I failed to make a Sephardic March of the Living because no organization would give me enough money. I had 120 people who signed up. And do you know who I was also rejected by? The Elie Wiesel Foundation. Because the Elie Wiesel Foundation does not deal with Holocaust education. This is part of our moral corruption. Elie Wiesel devoted his whole life to Holocaust education. And he made millions and he would charge dozens of thousands of dollars saying it would go to Holocaust education. And I’m sorry. It was a hoax. He’s a nice guy. He does good things. But this is morally corrupt. It doesn’t matter that I was rejected. The point is that the Elie Wiesel Foundation does not fund Holocaust education. He lost $15 million, so he claims, from Madoff."
Yitzchak Kerem pulls out 990 filings for 2008 and 2007 for the Elie Wiesel Foundation. (I wrote about them months ago here.)
Yitzchak: "I did not make this up. This is on the internet. Anyone can see this. The 2006 report from the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. Their gross receipts for 2006 were $39 million. They give out $800,000 for a very revered cause — to help Ethiopian cultural centers… But where’s the Holocaust education and commemoration?
"In his IRS report 2007, gross receipts were $85 million. In the middle here, something was sold for $70 million and they made $400,000. He lost $15 million to Madoff. Where’s the rest of the money?"
Luke: "Let’s talk about your books."
Yitzchak: "I wrote about the history of the Jews in Greece from 1821 to 1940, volume one. I worked 15 years on the 2300 years of history of the Jews in Greece. I deal with the Holocaust in the Epilogue. The important thing is not only the destruction of the Jews but what was destroyed, communal life. This dampered active Sephardic conscious life. This put a damper on rabbinic thought, on a vivid Judeo-Spanish press, literature, theatre, culture. Most of these things are totally foreign to you, but for the Sephardic world, this was the heart. When the Nazis destroyed Salonican Jewry, they knew what they were doing. They understood much more about it, unfortunately, than most people who are listening to this. They wanted to eliminate Salonica as one of the four most prolific Jewish centers in the world (along with Odessa, Minsk, and Vilna). The Nazis for years, since the ’30s, categorized, classified this community, collected information. The first deportation proceedings of Salonican Jewry were March 15, 1943. They wanted to eradicate this culture so much that they had deportations in France beginning in July 1942 of Salonican and Greek Jews.
"There are people out there who do not want Jewish culture, Jewish religion. This comes from thousands of years of resentment against Jews, that we did not accept Christianity, that we did not account for the crucifixtion of Christ. The Vatican made a very big move towards reconciliation but the Eastern Orthodox church made no move. In a lot of ways, they were rescuers during the Holocaust, but the theological issues still exist. This area is considered Ottoman, the sick man of Europe, it’s not important.
"What I do is often ignored and I’m ignored because I deal with these things. It’s not relevant. It’s not high culture, but it is the culture of half of the cognizant Jewish people today. The reason you have so many Israelis in Los Angeles, much more than your 250,000 official figure, because they don’t rate in Israeli society as Eastern Jews they are prejudiced against, they are discriminated against, they don’t have equal opportunities. These are the people I deal with 24 hours a day. I’ve been dealing with it for 32 years."
Luke: "Where were you educated?"
Yitzchak: "Macalester College, St. Paul, Minesota, in Greece, in Italy, in Norway (I studied third world development at the Peace Institute) and also Hebrew University."
Luke: "Where did you get your PhD?"
Yitzchak: "In Thesalonica at the Aristotelian University."
Luke: "What year did you get your doctorate?"
Yitzchak: "It was a while ago."
Luke: "Did you study in a yeshiva?"
Yitzchak: "A little bit. My parents didn’t want me to be too religious. I never went to a day school. I went to Orthodox, even Chareidi, summer camps. I studied a little bit at the Montreux Yeshiva in Switzerland. For the most part, my Jewish education is university or informal, from learning in the South side of Jerusalem at Ikar with Yedidya and other places."
"I grew up in Cleveland."
Luke: "How did you come to specialize in Sephardic Jewry?"
Yitzchak: "When I was at Macalester, I wanted to study in a totally foreign country. I missed the deadline to China and Greece was the second choice."
"Every Jew can take pride in that Sephardic culture is his culture and not just something different."
"How are Eastern Jews integrated into the Jewish world? Do we have two different communities living side by side? This is much less of a problem in America but it is a big problem in Israel. When your ethnic heritage is not recognized, when you have to create your own museum to put your own ethnic group in, it’s problematic. There’s no Sephardic museum… It creates animosity, hostility, resentment. The backfire of this is the Shas phenomena.
"In the 1950s, there were no yeshivot for Sephardim and Mizrachim. The Mapai secular regime totally cut off their cultural roots. We’re now paying for it with Shas, who dress like 16th Century Polish noblemen, weren’t accepted in Bnai Brak, and they want a new style of charedi Judaism where the real Sephardic tradition has fallen by the wayside. It affects halakhic (Jewish law) issues today. Rav Amar, instead of being an independent Sephardic thinker, is looking over his back, afraid of the ultra-Orthodox. So he therefore cancelled 50,000 Orthodox conversions. He doesn’t want to relate to agunah.
"Part of the way to tackle these other issues is to relate to this other culture. If people knew what the Sephardic traditions were, they wouldn’t accept this bunk. When you out of the blue cancel 50,000 conversions of devoted Jews, it’s a major problem. Maybe one day one of your relatives will want to marry the descendent of ones of these Jews. And what do you do?"