WJC threatens boycott against Transamerica

The World Jewish Congress has threatened a boycott against San Francisco insurance giant Transamerica if its parent company refuses to join a panel probing the claims of Holocaust survivors.

As of Wednesday, Dutch insurer Aegon NV hadn't joined the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, an act of defiance that has Elan Steinberg, executive director of the WJC, up in arms.

"They cannot give any logical explanation as to why they refuse to join," Steinberg said by phone Monday from New York. "If they have no outstanding claims, then why are they so afraid to join?"

However, the world's seventh biggest insurer (measured in terms of assets) seems to be getting ready to join, according to Dan Edwards, California deputy insurance commissioner.

Edwards attended a meeting of the international commission in London late last week and on Tuesday reported positive steps being taken by Aegon.

"I really don't think we're going to get to the point of a boycott because I think Aegon has the full desire to participate in the commission," Edwards said by phone from Sacramento. "They have the desire, and the commission is looking for appropriate ways to make it happen."

Edwards steered clear of crediting the WJC's boycott threat as snapping Aegon into action, but he didn't dismiss the threat's power.

"It's important that all organizations and entities involved in this stake out their philosophical positions," Edwards said. "The boycott seems to have caught their attention, but hopefully the issue itself is the driving force."

Aegon is already in good stead in California, having agreed earlier this month to comply with the state's new Holocaust Registry Law, which can prevent companies from doing insurance business in California if they refuse to cooperate.

Aegon and two other Dutch insurers agreed to turn over detailed European policyholder information from 1920 to 1945 to California officials by April 6. Also, the three will provide a total of $4.2 million to a fund for the state's 22,000 Holocaust survivors.

When that agreement was forged, Chuck Quackenbush, the state's insurance commissioner, called Aegon and the other two insurers "models of moral and corporate leadership."

Officials at Aegon USA's corporate offices in Des Moines, Iowa, insist their company is willing to honor unpaid policies, pointing to their agreement with California and a $21.2 million resolution in the Netherlands. Dutch Jews are divided in their support for that resolution, according to Steinberg.

Bill McClave, Transamerica's vice president of corporate communications in San Francisco, said Aegon is moving along a path toward joining the commission.

"We're having an open and constructive dialogue with the international commission and have established a basis for further discussion in the next few weeks," he said.

Like it or not, Transamerica was left vulnerable to sanctions aimed at Aegon after being acquired in July by the Dutch giant for a reported $10 billion.

Of Transamerica's 400 Bay Area employees, about 100 of them work in its offices in the famous San Francisco pyramid building.

McClave refused to discuss the proposed boycott, which Steinberg said will be launched by the WJC "in mid-January if Aegon has not joined by then."

The WJC is working with the international commission, but Steinberg doesn't speak for its chairman, Lawrence Eagleburger, or its chief of staff, Neil Sher.

Steinberg said the Jewish advocacy group will launch its boycott by mailing 1 million postcards and running advertisements in financial and other newspapers.

"The proposal has yet to be formally adopted," Steinberg said. "It will be a series of graduated steps, beginning first with a consumer boycott, asking for a cancellation of policies." The next step, he said, will be asking state and municipal governments to refrain from purchasing Transamerica policies and services.

One local insurance agent, emphasizing that Transamerica had nothing to do with policies in Europe from 1920 to 1945, said he would continue to write Transamerica policies in the face of a boycott.

Moreover, he predicted the effect of a boycott would be minimal.

"I just don't think Jews have that much purchasing power in insurance companies," said Norman Schlossberg, the co-owner of San Francisco's Jaffe-Schlossberg Insurance Inc. "I don't think Transamerica will be affected by the whole thing."

Steinberg stressed that he isn't necessarily condemning Aegon's effort to make Holocaust-era restitutions.

"It's a simple issue: one of process," he said. "This is not a case right now of determining their liability. The issue is process, and their refusal to join the international commission."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.