Holocaust Assets Conference Veers From Focus On Money
This week’s Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets was originally planned to zero in on the rapidly expanding list of stolen Jewish property and the governments that have balked at returning it.
But growing unease among Jewish leaders over the relentless focus on property and not “moral restitution” forced planners to reshape the agenda for the four-day meeting, sponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the State Department.
Miles Lerman, chair of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, confirmed that growing concern about the overwhelming focus on money had resulted in a change in the conference agenda.
“Survivors are entitled to get what was stolen from them or their parents,” he said. “But we believe Holocaust education is more important. We believe the last chapter of the Holocaust cannot
be gold and it cannot be bank accounts.”
A leading Holocaust activist said that “there’s a growing fear that seemed to crystallize in the planning of this conference that when people hear about the Holocaust, all they think about is Jews demanding money, not about the moral lessons that used to be our primary focus. There’s a feeling the pendulum went too far in the direction of assets. Now it’s swinging back toward education and moral accountability. This conference may have been the first step in finding a better balance.”
Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress and a key figure in uncovering data about Swiss gold and other looted assets, said that the conference was aiming “for a balance to show this is a moral as well as a material struggle. I think everybody here understands that.”
In an opening ceremony on Monday night at the museum, several speakers tried to shift attention away from questions of stolen property.
“All the money in the world will not diminish the pain we feel for the death of one Jewish child in Birkenau,” said survivor Elie Wiesel.
Impetus for the added focus on education also came from efforts by Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson, who responded to polls showing widespread ignorance of the Holocaust in his country with an aggressive education program that officials here say should be a model for other nations.
The surge in Holocaust education in Sweden, several museum officials said, generated strong pressure to expand the education component of this week’s conference.
The conference, which included representatives from more than 40 nations, featured sessions on the top restitution issues, including unpaid insurance claims, stolen art, communal property and gold.
In a speech opening the working sessions on Tuesday, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made the most direct allusion yet to her Jewish heritage, which she learned about shortly after her appointment in 1996.
“Now as I am 62 years old I think of my grandparents. I think about their faces and the faces of others I see in the U.S. Holocaust Museum and Yad Vashem and the Pinchas synagogue in Prague. I think about the blood in my family’s veins. Does it matter what kind of blood this is? It mattered to Hitler, and that matters to all of us because that is why 6 million Jews died.”
On the question of stolen Jewish art, Jewish leaders and State Department officials pushed for a broad, nonbinding consensus, committing nations to more energetically pursue information on art of dubious provenance, and to make that information widely available.
The goal was “to work out general principles that will require museums and galleries and auction houses to research the ownership of art before it is exchanged and sold, as you would do with property, so we can protect the original owners,” said Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat, the administration’s point man on restitution issues.
At one session, Jonathan Petropolis, a historian at Baltimore’s Loyola University, estimated that up to 100,000 art works stolen by the Nazis could still be missing.
The WJC’s Elan Steinberg used the high-profile conference to press the government of France to “release the last prisoners of war — the stolen artworks.” If France refuses to let the art out of the country, he said, “it may be an option to create a ‘Museum of Rescued Art.’ There are a number of restitution options that should be discussed, but it has to be done in a serious way.”
Delegates also worked to bolster the international commission dealing with thousands of unpaid insurance policies, according to Eizenstat. That commission, under the direction of former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleberger, is working with the insurance industry to develop plans for a global settlement for heirs of Holocaust victims.
Before the opening of the conference, the White House announced the appointment of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States. The panel will be headed by Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, and will include several Holocaust survivors and experts — and a handful of political contributors.
The panel’s mission is to investigate Holocaust-era assets that may have come under control of the U.S. government and companies in the private sector.
Mixed Response To Palestinian Aid
Most Jewish and pro-Israel groups will support the Clinton administration’s request for a doubling of U.S. aid to the Palestinians over five years, part of a $3 billion package worked out at this week’s international donor’s conference in Washington.
But the U.S. part of the pledge may be a hard sell in the new Congress. And Jewish lobbyists, whose role could be decisive in the upcoming fight, may be less enthusiastic than ever after Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat’s performance at this week’s high-profile conference.
The pledges represent “the beginning of a process which will turn words on paper into contracts, construction, sites and commerce in the West Bank and Gaza and throughout the Middle East,” said Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on Monday.
Administration officials said the new aid was essential to maintain Palestinian support for the shaky peace process.
Albright brushed aside new stories about the flagrant misuse of money from other donor nations, saying that U.S. aid goes directly to West Bank and Gaza projects, not to Arafat’s government.
But Arafat did his cause little good by using his visit to press his claim to East Jerusalem — an effort that produced ripples of concern at the State Department and angry blasts from the Netanyahu government.
At a news conference at the end of the donors meeting and in a speech to an Arab-American group on Sunday, Arafat said that he hoped a Palestinian state would be created in 1999, with Jerusalem as its capital.
“We say Holy Jerusalem is the capital of our state, but West Jerusalem can be the capital of Israel,” he said. “That is the basis of the Madrid process.”
“He’s intentionally tweaking the Israelis with these provocative statements,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“All that will do is add to the concerns of people in Congress who have read his recent statements, including his threats of violence.”
The conference produced pledges of $2 billion over five years from the European Union, $200 million from Japan and $100 million from Saudi Arabia.
The administration’s part of the package totals $900 million over five years, a $400 million increase.
The overall package, which will include at least $1 billion extra for Israel, will face tough scrutiny in a Congress determined to cut taxes and limit spending.
Incoming House speaker Bob Livingston (R-La.) has reportedly told colleagues he hopes to wait at least six months before tackling supplementary spending bills.
“Selling any aid in this environment, including the vital redeployment assistance for Israel, will be very difficult,” Hoenlein said. “We think it will go through, but it will not be easy.”
Anti-Oslo groups are already mobilizing the opposition.
“We’ve had preliminary talks with members of Congress, and we are hearing great concern about Arafat continuing to get aid while he violates not only Oslo but the Wye agreement,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, which has fought against Palestinian aid in the past. But most Jewish groups will press for the overall package despite reservations about Arafat’s corruption and compliance problems.
“It will be hard for Jewish groups not to be involved because the prime minister of Israel is involved,” said Mark Rosenblum, political director of Americans for Peace Now. “Some organizations might seek extra monitoring of Palestinian performance, but there’s widespread agreement that the need for economic aid is real and very immediate.”
And the fact that Israel’s aid is tied to the much smaller Palestinian allotment should encourage even reluctant pro-Israel groups to make a serious lobbying effort, he said.
Fascell Had ‘Real Jewish Heart’
Former Rep. Dante Fascell, who died this week at the age of 81, wasn’t Jewish, but during his 37 year tenure in the House, he was a kind of honorary member of the Jewish caucus.
The Florida Democrat served as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee from 1984 until his retirement in 1992. He was an outspoken supporter of Israel who used his committee position to advance the pro-Israel cause.
He was also a congressional leader in the fight for international human rights and in the effort to protect Jews in the former Soviet Union.
Fascell was an early Democratic supporter of President George Bush’s decision to use military force against Saddam Hussein after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991.
When Jewish House members got together for informal meetings — there never has been a formal Jewish caucus — Fascell was frequently included because of his close ties to the community and his work on behalf of the Jewish state.
“He had a real Jewish heart,” said a longtime pro-Israel lobbyist, “and he was a real believer in the importance of a thoughtful, active foreign policy. His retirement left a big vacuum.”