Dutch Jewish group disputes boycott of Transamerica

The San Francisco-based Transamerica Insurance Group and its Dutch parent company, Aegon NV, shouldn't be the target of a World Jewish Congress boycott, contends a group representing some Dutch Jews.

The Dutch Central Jewish Board is defending an agreement on Holocaust-era insurance policies that it reached last month with the Netherlands Association of Insurers.

In making their own deal, the Dutch Central Jewish Board and Dutch insurers acted independently of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, which has served as the world body for such restitution since August 1998.

Aegon and other European insurers have been accused of robbing Holocaust survivors by refusing to honor property and life insurance policies sold in the years leading up to World War II.

Aegon, one of eight companies singled out for refusing to join the commission, has claimed that it will only join if it gets special considerations because of its part in the Dutch agreement.

"We believe Aegon and other Dutch insurers should join our commission for a host of reasons," said commission chief of staff Neal Sher, a former chief prosecutor of Nazi war criminals at the Justice Department.

Agreeing with Sher that the commission is the proper global forum for insurance restitution issues, the World Jewish Congress vehemently objects to the Dutch Central Jewish Board's settlement.

"The Dutch Holocaust survivors do not support the agreement," said Elan Steinberg, the executive director of the WJC, a U.S.-based Jewish advocacy organization that launched a boycott against Transamerica last month.

He pointed to public opposition by the Union of Persecuted Victims, which includes survivors in Holland, and the Committee of Former Dutch Holocaust Survivors, which serves survivors abroad.

Both groups signed Dec. 20 letters to the WJC and Lawrence S. Eagleburger, the chairman of the international commission. The letters disavowed the settlement.

Over the weekend, the WJC finalized plans for a boycott against Transamerica that will be implemented incrementally over the next year and half, according to Steinberg.

The WJC is asking its 200,000 members to refrain from purchasing new policies with Transamerica, which Aegon bought for nearly $10 billion in July.

Steinberg also said the WJC, in testimony before the House Banking Committee scheduled for next week, would lobby to block any acquisitions or expansion by Transamerica or Aegon into the U.S. market.

If the boycott continues into the spring, the WJC will call for the cancellation of existing policies with Transamerica. If the dispute is not settled by late 2000, the WJC would then call for pension funds, institutions and foundations to sell any stakes they hold in Aegon.

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, disagrees with the WJC's approach. He criticized boycotts in general and any American organization that would put itself in the middle of a fight within the Dutch Jewish community.

"We respect local Jewish communities' decisions relating to their past and future," Foxman said in a Jan. 20 statement. "Therefore, if the Dutch Jewish community takes a decision they believe to be fair and just, we will not second-guess them."

In a Jan. 21 meeting at a Washington public relations firm, three Dutch representatives — including Dutch Central Jewish Board member Ronny Naftaniel — voiced their support for the agreement and their dismay at the boycott of Transamerica.

"We're quite proud of this settlement," said Eric Fischer, the general manager of the Dutch Association of Insurers. "It's very ironic that Aegon — who was in the forefront of settlements…the company that did so much to honor claims — is the one threatened with a boycott. I think it's very unfair and it doesn't do much good [for] a just cause."

He claimed that 98 percent of policies taken out by Jews before or during World War II were paid out to survivors and heirs by 1955.

The settlement involves a total of about $21.2 million in the Netherlands. Interest in that agreement has been added using a multiplier of 22. Steinberg contends that the multiplier set by the international commission is actually 32.

About 40 percent of the settlement will go to survivors and heirs in Holland and abroad. Roughly half will go to Holland's Jewish community; Jewish war victims will be consulted on use of those funds.

In addition, a big chunk of the money is being used to create an Internet-based virtual monument to Holocaust victims.

"It's really a computerized version of what the Jewish community looked like in 1940," said Frank Mankiewicz, the vice chair of the Hill & Knowlton public relations firm in Washington.

Some observers say that Holland's Jews have settled for less than their fair share.

Less than 11 percent of the country's 140,000 Jews survived the Nazi era. And according to historian Richard Z. Chesnoff, looting of Jews was rampant.

"The post-war history does not indicate that the Dutch Jewish community was forceful in making demands of the government for restitution," said Chesnoff, author of the new book "Pack of Thieves: How Hitler and Europe Plundered the Jews and Committed the Greatest Theft in History."

For his part, Naftaniel hopes the settlement helps resolve one aspect of a horrific epoch in Dutch history.

"If you want to come to terms with the past, you must put things in order," he said. "Then you can go hand in hand and fight for a better world."

Things are not yet in order, in Steinberg's view.

"It's not simply a Dutch issue," he said, pointing out that Aegon and other Dutch insurers had policies for Jews and others not only in Holland but other European countries.

Patrick Baird, Aegon USA chief operating officer, doesn't put much stock in what the WJC has to say about the issue.

"We have learned that unless it comes from Chairman Eagleburger, all this is pure speculation and irrelevant," he told Reuters.