Claims of Innocents

Eliahu Salpeter
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Eliahu Salpeter

Have you murdered and also claimed the victim's inheritance?" And what if the answer were yes? Does the demand for the restoration of Jewish property influence anti-Semitism in Europe? For Jew-haters and Holocaust-deniers, the restoration of Jewish property was always a cause of discontent, and a central and much-favored tool for incitement.

There have also been radical Jewish expressions of opposition to the demand for or the receipt of compensation - from the Herut members who smashed the windows of the Knesset during the famous demonstration against the reparations agreement of 1952, and through to Prof. Norman Finkelstein's 2002 book, "The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering." But rejecting the concept has always been a minority opinion; for most Jews, the matter was natural and self-evident.

The nations of the world were not opposed to the idea either - both because it pricked their consciences and because the payments came from the public coffers and not their private pockets.

In the first years after the Holocaust, the issue of the restoration of Jewish property remained low on the Jewish agenda. The fall of the Soviet empire and the opening up of the archives there refocused attention on the Nazi, and subsequent Communist, plundering. And again arose the question of the survivors who, in the past, were prevented from demanding their rights.

No less important was the support from American Jewry, which led to increased pressure on the U.S. administration, the Swiss banks and the insurance companies that swallowed up the deposits and policies of the Holocaust victims.

These demands did indeed stir animosity, but also helped promote the rights of the non-Jewish victims and survivors - primarily Russians, Ukrainians and other Slavs, as well as the Roma and Sinti (as the Gypsies prefer to be called), some 500,000 of whom were murdered by the Nazis. This fact served as somewhat of a counterbalance to anti-Semitic reactions to Jewish demands.

These anti-Semitic reactions appeared in a number of forms: Already in 1945, Polish farmers reacted with murderous pogroms against the handful of returning survivors who may have wanted to seek the restoration of their homes and lands. For decades, the distinguished directors of the major museums of art in the cities of the West ignored demands for the return of the paintings they hung on their walls and that had been stolen from Jewish homes. In general, when the stolen property was found in private hands the response was much harsher, as opposed to instances in which it had fallen into public hands.

Germany and Switzerland are the exception that proves the rule: After the war, then chancellor Konrad Adenauer, and most of the country's leadership, understood that only by bearing full responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi regime and accepting the obligation of material reparation to the survivors would Germany be allowed back into the family of nations. Recognition of the extent and uniqueness of the crime against the Jewish nation was the principal reason for the rarity of the anti-Semitic responses to the financial burden of the reparations that Bonn took upon itself. The second generation even responded with outspoken support for Israel.

The third generation, the young generation of recent years, has broken away to a large degree from the feelings of guilt, and is influenced more by Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. The special immunity that the past once granted both the Jews in Germany and the Jewish state is fading, and the Palestinians' claim that they are the victims of the West's attempt to compensate the victims of the Nazis is beginning to take root.

In Switzerland, they tried to act as if it all had nothing to with them. But even those with the best of intentions are unable to say that guilt feelings were what led the banks there to cough up $1.25 billion in relation to the deposits of Holocaust victims that remained in their vaults. When it came to the Jewish organizations' campaign for these deposits, the gloves came off. They rocked two of Switzerland's most sacred principles - the halo of neutrality and the credibility of its banks.

The Swiss government was forced to establish a commission of inquiry, which also questioned the neutrality legend, exposed the extent of the collaboration with Nazi Germany and proved just how far the Swiss banks were prepared to go to avoid having to return the deposits of the Jewish victims.

The anti-Semitic responses were not long in coming. Swiss anti-Semitism's most prominent mouthpiece is billionaire and nationalist legislator Christophe Blocher, who repeatedly accused Jewish organizations in the United States and Western Europe of "extortion." His was not a lone voice.

One of the most serious claims against the widespread campaign for the restoration of property and reparations is that it turns the Holocaust, in the eyes of the non-Jewish world, into a matter of money and capital, and thus reinforces the Jewish Shylock image. Such arguments are indeed heard from Holocaust-deniers and other anti-Semites.

But the demands for the restoration of property and compensation were not the only factors to fuel the anti-Semitic sentiments. The reports on the disputes among the Jewish organizations themselves regarding how to distribute the compensation created the impression that the funds intended for the survivors were not finding their way to the most needy cases or the legitimate heirs.

A particularly sensitive issue lies in the contention that while hundreds of millions of dollars were spent of museums, monuments and commemorative enterprises, the Jewish organizations were not allocating enough money to the welfare and care of the ill and elderly survivors.

The fires of anti-Semitic sentiment are stoked no less intensely by the reports that certain Jewish lawyers in the United States are demanding - and in some cases, receiving - legal fees to the tune of tens of million dollars for handling collective claims of Holocaust survivors.

These arguments and concerns, however, are imbued with a series of paradoxes. First of all, the very necessity of having to apologize for a demand to restore what was plundered is, in fact, a response to concerns about anti-Semitism: Is a German fearful of demanding the return of property confiscated by the Communists in the former East Germany? Secondly, the museums and commemorative enterprises are vital for quashing the claims of Holocaust-deniers and the "Holocaust industry" greed arguments. There is much truth to the claims that the Jewish organizations are treating the money as if it were their own; but without the determination of the quasi-officials and their organizations, it is doubtful whether the restoration of property and compensation would have been achieved. This consideration also holds true regarding the argument that the aggressive and vociferous nature of the demands encourages anti-Semitic responses: Would quiet, courteous approaches to the Swiss bank managers, for example, really have caused them to allocate one-and-a-quarter billion dollars for this purpose?

And a double paradox: On the one hand, when Jewish organizations demand to receive the assets of Jewish communities that were wiped out, it appears to concur with the notion that Jews are different from other citizens, whose heirless assets become the property of the state; on the other hand, denying Jews their rights as equal citizens was, after all, the first step on the road to Auschwitz.

The questions concerning how much the demands for the restoration of property and compensation contributed to the increase of anti-Semitism are legitimate and relevant. But it appears that today, in the age of global terror and a fading of the memory of the Jewish Holocaust, the influence of these demands is marginal. The vast majority of anti-Semitic phenomena today are not the result of anger over the demand to pay the rent of a Holocaust survivor who is approaching the end of his days.

One can criticize many of the ways in which things have been and are being done, but as far as current anti-Semitism is concerned, it appears to be a secondary issue. The anti-Semitic incidents in Britain, France or Italy are, almost exclusively, the acts of Muslims and those who incite them. They have no interest at all in what the Claims Commission does with the money from Germany.



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