Chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee Moshe Gafni has established an ad hoc sub-committee to report on restitutions to Holocaust survivors, which are estimated to total hundreds of millions of shekels, including alleged funds held by Bank Leumi. The committee, to be headed by MK Zeev Bielski, is to submit its first report within one month.
According to the Company for Restitution of Holocaust Victims Assets, Bank Leumi had passed some funds belonging to Holocaust victims to the British authorities of Palestine, which then passed it on to the Israeli government.
The bank is being sued to repay linkage and interest differences for the entire period in which it held the assets belonging to the heirs of the deceased. Additionally, other funds have never been transferred from the bank and remain there in a dormant account. The bank is being sued to return these funds in real value to the successors of the original owners.
MK Gafni told the Finance Committee yesterday that he felt humiliated on behalf of Holocaust survivors, who are being forced to deal with this embarrassing issue. "It's simply shameful. The banks, and Bank Leumi principally," Gafni said, "should have behaved differently. They should have initiated a solution to the problem themselves. It is a disgrace." he said.
Gafni also promised that a debate would be held on the issue, even during summer recess, in order to find a way to once and for all end what he describes as a scandalous issue that has dragged on for decades and harmed Holocaust survivors. "If it is proven that the Finance Committee lacks sufficient power and 'teeth,' we will hold a special debate on the committee's powers," Gafni vowed.
He went on to say he would not hesitate to call for new legislation and development of new mechanisms to enhance the committee's powers.
Bielski, of the Kadima party, who raised the issue together with Shas MK Amnon Cohen and will lead the sub-committee, said there are bank deposits of some NIS 300 million that belong to Holocaust victims, which bureaucracy and narrow-mindedness have prevented their heirs from receiving.
"I have never spoken on a more painful subject," Bielski said. "And this is one of the first times I have participated in a demonstration against any action. As the child of a family of Holocaust victims and as an Israeli, I am ashamed of the way this has been handled. Unfortunately, another Holocaust survivor passes away every day, and time is a crucial issue. Everything must be done to put an end to this disgrace."
Bielski also noted that Discount Bank and Mercantile Discount Bank have promised to release the funds they have been holding and transfer them to the Company for Restitution over the next few days.
Head of the public relations department at Bank Leumi, Aviram Cohen, said the bank would return all funds proved to have belonged to victims of the Holocaust. "We have already restituted three accounts," Cohen said. MK Haim Oron (Meretz) said the number was indicative of the bank's approach. "If it was 2,000 out of 3,000 I would have believed there was goodwill on the bank's part, but it's 3 out of 3,500."
Yaakov Weinrott, an attorney representing the Company for Restitution in its lawsuit against the bank, said the chief obstacle was Leumi's claim that the funds were in the care of the state - and therefore it couldn't produce an estimate. "[Bank Leumi] says it's not legally obliged to keep documents more than seven years old, and that the burden of proof rests with the Holocaust survivors."