Seeking Moral Restitution

This week’s Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets was intended to zero in on the rapidly growing 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, said 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 prominent 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 conference featured overviews of the top restitution issues, including unpaid insurance claims, stolen art, communal property and gold.

In a speech to open 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? 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, originally a primary focus of the conference, Jewish leaders and State Department officials hoped to work out a set of “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 artworks 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 that’s dealing with thousands of unpaid insurance policies, according to Eizenstat.

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.

The opening session of the conference on Monday night was picketed by Neturei Karta, a New York Orthodox group that rejects the state of Israel. Demonstrators outside the museum claimed the restitution effort is “against the Torah.”

AIPAC Rates No. 2

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) may have lost its best congressional friend ever with the resignation of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., but the pro-Israel lobbying group is still seen as a Washington heavyweight — a status confirmed with this week’s annual Fortune Magazine listing of the capital’s top 25 lobby groups.

For the second straight year, Fortune ranked AIPAC No. 2 in lobbying clout, just behind the American Association of Retired Persons, whose acronym — AARP — is about to become its sole name as it tries to recruit younger members.

In contrast, the National Rifle Association, widely regarded as a model for hard-edged Capitol Hill advocacy, was rated fourth, up two slots from last year. And the Christian Coalition, the leading beacon of the religious right and a major force in Republican politics despite its claims of nonpartisanship, was seventh, unchanged from last year.

The survey, conducted by Democratic pollster Mark Mellman — who was almost named AIPAC’s executive director in 1994 — and Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican group. Surveys were sent to people who know power politics when they see it — including every member of Congress, Capitol Hill staffers, top White House aids and other lobbyists. — James D. Besser, Washington Correspondent