Seven Levels of Hell

Let's admit the truth: For almost 60 years, it was the State of Israel that refused to restore Holocaust victims' assets to their heirs.

When the Foreign Ministry is talking about appointing a special ambassador for the restitution of Holocaust assets even as we are tut-tutting about the state comptroller's findings on the company for restituting Holocaust assets here, some soul-searching is in order. For while one can complain about the company and criticize its actions, it is equally possible to view what is going on there as an inheritance from the state's decision-makers throughout its history.

Let's admit the truth: For almost 60 years, it was the State of Israel that refused to restore Holocaust victims' assets to their heirs. For some reason, all its leaders reared up on their hind legs and refused to follow in the footsteps of European countries. They refused to pull out the lists and free assets that clearly belonged to those who perished in the Holocaust from the crushing embrace of giants like the Jewish National Fund, the Israel Land Development Corporation, the custodian general, and above all, the banks.

Just look at what a tortuous path former MK Colette Avital had to pursue to get the ball rolling with the parliamentary committee on asset restitution that she chaired. For five overly long years, she and her colleagues battled all the interested parties that refused to see the survivors, the murdered and their heirs as people with rights. Only at the end of this process was an agreement reached to create the restitution company - initially as a government company, but later as an independent entity.

So now we're surprised that something isn't working there? How can it work when company employees are forced to invest the bulk of their time and energy in long, exhausting struggles with, for instance, Bank Leumi, whose executives still refuse even today to agree on the amount they have to return to the heirs? The parliamentary committee strove for five years, another two years were wasted on the work of the committee that calculated how much Holocaust-era deposits would be worth today, and Bank Leumi still hasn't budged.

Moreover, how is it possible to function when the Justice Ministry is considering a plan to "renationalize" the company by shuffling its board of directors so that Holocaust survivors will no longer have a majority?

A preoccupation with bookkeeping and battles against powerful economic forces may not be an excuse for the company's sluggishness in locating the heirs, but it certainly explains its conduct from a psychological standpoint.

There are plenty of problems with the Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims' Assets, but it is also virtually the only body that has lived up to the decision to transfer a significant chunk of the proceeds from unclaimed assets to the needy survivors who dwell among us. It is also virtually the only body that hasn't made them pass through all seven levels of hell to obtain the money: It just gave it.

When one hand is fighting the banks and the other is giving money to the needy, it seems we ought to be able to try to forgive the rest.