Pursuing Justice, But at WhatCost?


One could almost see historyon the march in Washington last week when the House Banking Committeeheld a day of hearings on Nazi plunder — stolen artworks in themorning, looted insurance policies after lunch — and how to restoreit to its rightful owners.

These days, of course, it is historic enough justto see a roomful of Congress members managing to tear themselves awayfrom probing the president’s underwear for a day. But the Naziplunder hearings carry a deep meaning. They represent a sort of milemarker in the mysterious unfolding of Jewish history. And notnecessarily a healthy one.

Right now, there are at least four separate billsmoving through Congress, each aimed at getting the U.S. government tohelp identify stolen Jewish assets and win them back. Last week’shearings laid out some of the legal and technical hurdles. Insurerssay much of their prewar assets were seized by communists in EasternEurope, where most Holocaust victims lived; while the firms amassednew fund reserves, these may not be applicable to the lost policies.Lawyers say that statutes of limitations on stolen property varybetween nations and even states, ensuring a jurisdictionalnightmare.

Perhaps most significant, reclaiming stolen assetswill be hampered by a chasm between two different Western legalcodes. In the common law of Britain and America, stolen goods belongto their original owner, however often they change hands. In thecivil law followed in Austria, France, Italy and much of the world,someone who unwittingly buys stolen goods “in good faith” owns themoutright, ending the original owner’s rights. In much of Europe, manyHolocaust victims simply have no legal right to their propertyanymore.

Despite the complications, sources on Capitol Hillinsist that some form of legislation will be enacted this year. Whenit is, the campaign for restitution — against Swiss banks that hidHolocaust victims’ accounts, insurance companies that wouldn’t payout their life insurance, museums that won’t give back their stolenpaintings — will take on a new profile. It will no longer be theinsurance companies against the Jews. They will be tangling with theworld’s lone superpower.

How we got here is a remarkable tale: years ofspadework by Jewish organizations, sympathetic press coverage, publicoutcry, a bill by a friendly lawmaker, overwhelming congressionalsupport.

It’s not new. Following the same script, Congress,in 1974, passed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, making U.S.- Soviettrade relations dependent on how Moscow treated Jews. In 1977,Congress outlawed compliance by U.S. businesses with the Arab boycottof Israel. In 1978, Congress created the Office of SpecialInvestigations, the Nazi-hunting unit of the Justice Department, totrack down war criminals who settled here illegally after World WarII.

In each case, the power of the U.S. government washarnessed to an international pursuit of justice for Jews. This is nosmall thing. No government in history ever treated Jews so kindly.Nor does America pursue justice for all people everywhere. It did notact to stop the genocide in Rwanda. It dithered for three yearsbefore taking action in Bosnia. Many Americans oppose entanglement inconflicts overseas, period.

For that matter, America has its own victims ofinjustice still awaiting restitution: the remnants of the Cherokeeand Sioux, the grandchildren of black slaves. What they seem to getfrom America, more than anything, is resentment that they are stillhurting.

But when it comes to Jewish suffering, Americarises up like a mighty wave. Initiatives such as Jackson-Vaniktypically pass Congress by huge majorities, approaching unanimity.America, it often seems, simply likes Jews.

It wasn’t always so. Think back, say, six decades.In the spring of 1939, Congress held hearings on a bill to easeimmigration rules so that 20,000 German Jewish children could beplaced in American foster homes, out of the Nazis’ path. The ideadrew a storm of opposition and died in committee. At the time, therewere 60 bills before Congress to restrict immigration even further,mainly to keep Jews out. Polls showed that five of every sixAmericans opposed any easing of immigration restrictions, Hitler orno Hitler. Almost 30 percent believed that Jews were a threat toAmerica.

Sixty years ago, America refused to save Jews fromNazism. Today, America springs into action. What caused the change?One could be dewy-eyed and credit it to America’s bedrock moralfiber. But that would not explain America in 1939. One could becynical and chalk it up to our campaign financing, which favors thosewho know how to give. But that ignores the genuine good inAmerica.

In the end, one cannot explain it without talkingabout the postwar organized Jewish community. Time after time, Jewishleaders — yes, sometimes they are exactly that — managed tocrystallize an issue in terms that appealed to America’s sense ofjustice. They got the public’s attention and forged coalitions. Mostimportant, they managed, at best, to frame the debate in a way thatleft the other side looking foolish and wicked.

This time, they are trying something new. Intaking on museums and insurance companies, the Jewish community hasembarked, for the first time, on a campaign in which the crimes arenot necessarily inhuman and the enemies are not necessarily wicked.It is a battle not of good versus evil but of conflicting claims anddifferent legal interpretations. It is a battle for money.

It is a battle that leaves many Jews queasy. Mostuneasy are Holocaust survivors, who spent their lives fighting tomake the world see the incomparable evil of the Nazis’ crimes. Nowthe moral authority they amassed over a lifetime is being used todemand cash — not from Nazis but from neutral financialinstitutions. Many survivors are very unhappy about this.

Few speak out because they do not want to dividethe community. They hesitate, too, because no one wants to justifyrobbery. Most of the victims’ claims are doubtless justified. Manycry out for justice.

But in taking up these claims as the Jewishpeople’s crusade, the community’s leadership has taken a huge gamble.American Jews have had no greater weapon in the last half centurythan their unquestioned moral authority as symbols of suffering andredemption. What will remain of that authority when the dickering isdone and the insurance companies have paid us off?

J.J. Goldberg is the author of “Jewish Power:Inside the Amercan Jewish Establishment.” He writes regularly for theJewish Journal.

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